Phantasm (1979) -Writing about movies I have seen many times over the years is always a bit tricky. What is there to say about these low budget horror classics that has not been said? Well one thing I can do is look at the year this film came out and reflect on my world at the time. 1979 was the year that the hostages were taken in Iran, I was in high school at Boston English High finishing up my sophomore year and when not in school hanging out in Byrne Park in Dorchester MA. It was a time when I did not go to the movies a lot but certainly went to the Neponset Drive In regularly, still I don't think I saw this film for the first time until VHS. There were quite a few more popular horror movies that year so I am sure this would have been low on the priority list anyway. Let's see do I go to see Amityville Horror, or Phantasm? Alien or Phantasm? Hell The (friggin) Warriors came out that year and parents all over the place were up in arms thinking all us teens were going to put on stupid matching outfits and commit crimes. I remember every time someone got knifed or beat up a new wave of news reports tried to connect it to this insidious movie that was corrupting our kids.
This picture would be a hard sell that year with the theaters being filled with viewers for Kramer vs. Kramer, Apocalypse Now, Rocky II, Being There, Star Trek The Motion Picture all vying for the spotlight. Did Kramer vs. Kramer really beat out Apocalypse Now for Best Picture, WTF? I remember it as the year Bo Derek filled are adolescent minds with masturbatory glee appearing in the Dudley Moore comedy "10". I was not yet in tuned to the fact that adults were spending hard earned cash to see the dreadful Caligula that year although kids at the park talked about it quite a bit. Even in Horror and sci-fi imagine releasing your $300k film with the previous mentioned classics that came out that year. Not that there was a glut of great horror, for every Alien there was a "The Brood" or "The Black Hole". Phantasm sat on the outskirts as it probably should have and although i remember kids talking about the metal sphere in general I don't think I remember a lot of buzz around this film although I think there must have been because the film did do well at the box office earning 11 million dollars. There is the great poster though and the tag line "If this one doesn't scare you, you're already dead." I think as years have passed its reputation has grown, to now where it is considered a classic.
The story of this film being made really is a classic small time movie story. Director Don Coscarelli came up with the ideas in Phantasm initially after having a dream about being chased through corridors by a metal orb. Building on this idea while staying at a creepy cabin in the woods. The isolation was key in his development of the story. At age twenty two be had already made two features films but this was the first horror film. Using actors who primarily have played roles in his first films he brought together the movie doing most of the work himself writer, director and cinematographer. His father raised money for the feature and his mother Kate Coscarelli, a best selling author did the makeup and later wrote the novelization of Phantasm.
It is a really strange tale from beginning to end, starting with the cemetery scene where Tommy (Bill Cone) is getting laid by the Lavender Lady (Kathy Lester) and we see her raise her knife and plunge it into him, then she flashes no longer a woman but instead the Tall Man. The movie settles a bit as we see the funeral of Tommy at the Morningside Mortuary and we are introduced to the characters and the main characters. It is a story of two brothers who have recently lost their parents. Jody (Bill Thornbury) the older brother is a young adult taking care of his thirteen year old brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). Jody is thinking he has no real connections anymore to the area and might drop the kid at an uncles and head out on the road for awhile. Mike on the other hand is having the anxiety of losing the last person who means anything to him. He has taken to following his older brother around, never letting him get too far away. Mike is being forced to grow up too fast and face a reality he is too young for. The death of Jody's friend only strengthens the feeling of disconnecting from the small town for the older brother. It may just be a matter of time before he hops in his kickass 1971 Plymouth Barracuda and heads out on the road.
A funny thing happens on the way to that decision though, there are strange goings on at the Morningside cemetery and mortuary. The head employee, The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) seems to be one scary dude, with supernatural strength and a creepy look. Then there are the little robed figures running about here and there. Never fully in view the main characters keep hearing them and catching glimpses out of the corner of the eye. Mike suspects very quickly that there is something going on up at the Morningside that he has to find out about and that investigation gets him, Jody and their friend Reg into a story that is out of this world.
Besides the great portrayal of The Tall Man by Angus Scrimm is some of the hokey fun special effects. At the local psychic is the box that appears before Mike from nowhere. He gets to cut off a bunch of fingers and ends up with a twitching one he keeps in a box, only to have it turn into a red eyed fly. Then there is the unforgettable element of the effect, the flying sphere. Iconic at this point is its metallic whir and sharp blades. It is designed as a defense mechanism for the mortuary. whipping round the corriders looking for a head to impale. When it does the exceptional weapon is not done, as a drill burrows into the head and blood flows out through the backside of the orb. This is such a great effect.
As we learn about the mortuary and the doorway it contains to another world we have the suspense amplified by the great tonal soundtrack that just hums the entire movie. It is moody and exciting and really makes the film so much more a horror experience. When we learn the full story that the mortuary connects to an alien planet and the Tall Man is taking the dead from earth, squashing them down into the little robed figure we have seen and using them as slave labor our minds have been blown. All the while the personal story of the two brother keeps us grounded in the reality of real lives and problems. It really is quite the little film. I never saw that story coming.
There are several different ending to this film that were all shot but then a decision to go with Mike and Reg talking about the death of Jody was decided on. It is a bizarre twist of an ending that if you like it it is great, but if you don't you are sorely disappointed. In a the alternate endings, one has The Tall man being hanged and another has him being sprayed with a fire extinguisher and dissolving / exploding into green goop. In yet another part of which was used in this film we see Mike at his brothers grave and as the camera pulls back we see another funeral in the cemetery and leading the service is The Tall Man. They settled with him waking from a dream and being comforted by Reggie, and the Tall Man ultimately being victorious.
Anyway you take it this is a film that every horror fan should see. Is it the greatest film in the world? No it has some real flaws but it is original and with characters that you will remember long after the film stops. So much of horror is retread stories told a different way but here you have something unique. It mixes science fiction and horror and comes out like no other movie. knowing the way Hollywood works I would not be surprised if a remake was already in the works. Trust me though the original film is worth the watch.