It arrived during the final phases of classic ‘70s horror, an era that had seen The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Halloween reestablish the genre’s credibility as a cinematic art form. John Carpenter’s slasher suspense story specifically reinvigorated a flagging industry interest in scary stuff, and the marketplace was preparing for a flood of finely tuned copycats. But standing out there all alone in the macabre wilderness was independent filmmaker Don Coscarelli. Having had some minor success with more family-oriented fare, the young director noticed that an inconsequential moment of fear during one of his more genial movies really gave audiences a start. Wanting to capitalize on such a crowd reaction, he parlayed a dream he once had, along with a collection of ideas and icons he had collected from years as a drive-in B-movie buff, into an experiment in terror. Labeling his final product Phantasm, he sent his monster movie out into the commercial landscape to see what would happen. The results were unexpected.
Something strange is happening over at the Morningside Cemetery and Funeral Home. People have been disappearing and interned bodies have gone missing. The enigmatic director of the parlor, a strange figure only known as The Tall Man, appears to stalk the small suburban California town, and this makes Jody Pearson, his little brother Michael, and their pal Reggie very uneasy. When a mutual friend is found dead in the local graveyard, all eyes shift to Morningside. A late-night visit inside the mausoleum reveals some stunning supernatural surprises. The paranormal follows the Pearson boys as they try to make sense of what’s going on. It’s not long before young Mike is seeing the Tall Man everywhere he goes. With his older sibling firmly in the madman’s demonic sights, Mike knows something sinister is definitely afoot.
Phantasm was the Scream of its era, an ironic nod and wink to the formulas and familiarities of the creature feature deconstructed by a man who really understood the genre he was jeering. Since the slasher film was still a glowing glimmer in Tinseltown’s tainted eye, director Don Coscarelli relied on the previous two decades of drive-in horror, a catalog of films filled with monsters, graveyards, psychotic killers, and even a smattering of science fiction, to foster his vision. They became the bricks for his new form of fear, the building blocks for a surreal narrative that sacrificed sense in order to keep the shivers alive and electrifying. While some didn’t mind that the plot seemed pointless, a creative clothesline upon which various shock set pieces could be fashioned, others saw beneath the scattered surface to recognize what Coscarelli was really after.
Between the tender familial drama, the clever character turns, and one glorious moment of gore, at its core, Phantasm was and remains a movie about the nature of dread. It’s an experiment in what makes us afraid. It uses any and all terror tenets—suspense, bloodletting, the unknown, the unstoppable—as gears in an ever-churning macabre machine. Perhaps the clearest indication of Coscarelli’s success remains the enigmatic villain he created, the iconic Tall Man. It’s rare when a movie can leave behind such a lasting impression. For Phantasm, this lumbering ghoul remains its legitimate legacy.
But there is more here than just Angus Scrimm in a badly fitting suit. For anyone who grew up with old-school horror, Phantasm felt like and continues to play like a primer. Coscarelli obviously knew what fans expected and what the average person believes to be scary or unsettling, and went with a clear kitchen sink creepy approach. From the opening which mixes sex and slaughter to the sequence where a severed finger turns into a ravenous beastie, there are no set rules in the Phantasm universe, no logic to the way terror becomes part of the real world’s temporal plane. Coscarelli has often said that he was influenced by surrealism, recognizing the inherent power in particular imagery juxtaposed together.
Phantasm is full of such moments: Mike’s vision of the Tall Man in an antique photo; the Lady in Lavender’s subtle shape shifts; the fog encased vision of Reggie’s ice cream truck overturned and motionless; the menacing marble mortuary with its floating metallic “caretaker.” Though they seem to have no link to each other (and let’s not get started on the whole Jawa/space slave issue, okay?), and individually would appear more singular than substantive, Coscarelli manages to make them seem wholly organic to the strange circumstances we are stuck in. As a result, their inherent power to unsettle stays with us long after the final false ending has arrived.
The key to making this all work starts with solid performances from a completely complementary cast. Your performers have to play with, not against you, adding to the overall effectiveness of the terror. In this case, Coscarelli found a good friend (the excellent Reggie Bannister), a well-meaning musician (Bill Thornbury), and a precocious kid he had worked with before (A. Michael Baldwin), and forged a unique and totally authentic bond. Some may wonder about the front porch jam, Reggie and Billy banging away on some self-penned blues stomp, but the truth is, nothing establishes communion better than the sharing of something as personal as music. We immediately understand the connection and recognize the attachment both have for each other.
Similarly, Billy and Michael play siblings with a love of cars (in this case, a completely bad-ass Barracuda) and tinkering, and it’s a mutual experience that helps fuse them together as a family. With other standard ‘70s touches like dead parents, issues of abandonment, and the usual adolescent concerns of growing up and taking responsibility, Coscarelli creates a character dynamic we truly believe and support. Since we accept the relationship of the trio, we have a much easier time of falling into the fear.
Still, Phantasm remains a director’s film, a highlight reel that also manages to be an effective fright flick. Coscarelli, who had made a couple of midlevel mainstream movies before diving into dread, obviously knows his way around a camera. His placement throughout this film is fascinating. He uses low angles and obscure framings to keep things uncomfortable, and applies handheld and other POV techniques to keep the audience directly involved in the action. This is particularly true of a late-night car chase between the Pearson boys and the Tall Man’s driverless hearse. As Jody climbs out of the Cuda’s sunroof to level a shotgun at the vile vehicle, Coscarelli’s lens is right there, standing directly between the trigger and the target.
There’s also a sense of Hardy Boys-like adventure here, a concept of personal ingenuity and everyday invention that keeps viewers curious and connected. When Michael is locked in his room and looking for a way out, his MacGyver-like creativity results in one of the movie’s most memorable stunts. Similarly, when faced with having to outsmart the villainous maniac mortician, the boys rely more on their brains than their brawn to find a shorthanded solution. It’s all part of the queer contrasts at play here. Phantasm has a narrative locked in its own perplexing universe, yet its director constantly strives for some manner of realism and authenticity.
There will be some who complain about the special effects (though the movie’s most memorable bit of brain-draining is still as shocking as it was three decades ago) and the often ambiguous explanation for just what is going on at the Morningside Funeral Parlor. Yet Phantasm remains a viable entity some 28 years after its release because it represents something unique in the post-modern world of horror. By mixing up all the hocus pocus possibilities of the genre into a single supernatural stew, Coscarelli both reinvigorated and set the death knell for the next two decades. But Phantasm remains his best known effort, a four-film (and growing) franchise that has its basis in one fabulously fascinating movie. At the time, it literally shook the scare fanbase. Today, it’s a testament to one man’s amazing ability.