Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.


Cinema Monolith: 6/10 Film Reel
IMDb: 6.8/10
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: *½ out of 4

Released on June 1, 1979
Rated R
88 minutes

Directed by Don Coscarelli

Written by Don Coscarelli

Cast: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Terrie Kalbus, Ken Jones, Susan Harper, Lynn Eastman, David Arntzen, Ralph Richmond, Bill Cone, Mary Ellen Shaw, Angus Scrimm

I was only 16 when this film was first released back in 1979, and as a lover of horror and sci-fi I was dying to check it out. However, I was still a year away from being able to see an R-rated movie on my own, and sneaking in was not an option, so when my Dad offered to take me to the movies one night that summer, Phantasm was my obvious choice. What I remember most about the experience was how the film just started in the middle of a scene: no production company logo, no title, and no opening credits. The lights went down, and suddenly on-screen was some kid was riding a motorcycle through a cemetery, leaving myself and everyone else in the audience wondering what the hell was going on.

Years later I finally watched the film again on home video, and I wondered if, at that previous screening, the theater staff had somehow forgotten to splice in the first reel or two for that night’s showing. Anyway, the reason I bring this up is, even after seeing the film a second time, and this time in its entirety, I still had no idea what the hell was going on. This was definitely a horror movie, and an original one at that, but scenes and ideas and narrative threads played out so disjointed and choppy, it was hard at times to see and/or follow the story beyond the scary moments and out-there situations. And maybe that’s okay, depending on how you like your horror served.

But here’s what I did understand: a guy attends his friend’s funeral, and soon discovers—along with his younger brother and another friend—that the funeral home is not what it appears to be. The inquisitive trio then become involved in some frightening and other-worldly situations, and fighting for their lives against a tall, menacing undertaker, dwarves in brown cloaks, a blonde who kills her lovers during sex, a tuning fork to another dimension, and a flying silver sphere that has a penchant for slamming into human foreheads and drilling smack-dab into their skulls. What I didn’t understand would, well, fill a tall man’s mausoleum, and would take pages upon pages to discuss.

A good portion of the success of Phantasm—in terms of both completion and fan appreciationshould go to Don Coscarelli, who did whatever it took to get the film made: he not only wrote the screenplay and directed, but also served as the film’s cameraman and editor, and filmed only on weekends to save money on the cost of renting a camera (with filming taking over a year to complete). Many of his actors and crew were made up of friends, while his mother assisted with makeup and costumes, and his father helped with production costs. But this ‘seat of their pants’ filmmaking may have also been responsible for the confusing nature of the story: ever-changing script pages, improvisation, extensive editing, and lack of an ending no doubt wreaked havoc on the stability of the final product.

I seem to remember Phantasm not generating many good reviews back when it was first released, but nowadays it’s considered a solid horror classic among fans of the genre. For me, I’d say it’s more a cult horror classic, not unlike the many low-end and under-performing horror and sci-fi films of the 1950s; not so well-received then, but looked upon now with a gentler and more forgiving eye. And I’ll admit, for an independently-made horror movie, it does have a lot of cool things going for it (especially that damn metallic ball!). I loved the creative thought behind it, and what was done on a low budget, and—on a personal level—the older brother’s black Plymouth Barracuda, which I’d kill to own.

The dictionary defines the term ‘phantasm’ as ‘a perception of something that has no physical reality; a figment of the mind, especially a specter or ghost’. Which overall makes perfect sense when applied to this movie…a surreal, dream-like journey that’s either a metaphor for teen angst and loss, a cautionary tale against sleeping with strangers in graveyards, or a muddled horror offering with random moments of chilling clarity. For me, I’d say it’s a moderately well-made drive-in monster flick that shouldn’t be examined too closely, but in the end makes for some entertaining—if not totally coherent—viewing.  (6/10)

16 comments on “Phantasm

  1. Weird odd but I like it. I think you captured it and how we should look at it. No classic but holds a cult reputation and rightly so.

    • Todd B

      Definitely weird, definitely odd, but yes, still fun. I’ve seen two of the four sequels…not sure if I should continue on or not.

      • Seen first four and didn’t mind number 2. Haven’t seen the latest 5th installment though it is on the shelf here.

      • Todd B

        I seem to remember the second one being worth a watch, but recall nothing about the third. I might as well be a completeist and watch the final two at some point down the road.

  2. Julie Dunning

    I think we’ve had this conversation before, but you completely dodge any details surrounding the fact that your Dad willingly took you to an “R” rated movie, apparently without discussion! I loved this movie and your inside scoop regarding it’s creation is fascinating. Great choice for a review!!

    • Todd B

      What do you mean, ‘without discussion’…are you saying that I tricked him into it, or that we didn’t discuss the content of the film before or afterwards? And he took me to quite a few R-rated movies that year: Animal House, Life of Brian, and Alien to name a few. But what’s funny is, he now doesn’t remember taking me to Phantasm, and even denies doing so! And come to think of it, my Mom took Scott and I to see The Amityville Horror that year as well! (In fact, my first R-rated film was actually in 1976, when my Dad took me to see the Dirty Harry film The Enforcer).

      And I didn’t know you’d seen Phantasm before, AND liked it! Pretty cool!

      • It’s just a flaming miracle that you turned out so well and are such a great guy (with that heavy-duty jump-start on “Restricted” films). Those were all excellent choices btw. I had to SNEAK into anything “R”!

      • Todd B

        Based on your nice comment, maybe ALL kids should see their first R-rated film at 13! And I’m kinda embarrassed to say, but the only film I ever snuck into was rated PG!

      • Gonna leave us hangin’?!? And what film would that be please?!? I probably should know this. Duh.

      • Todd B

        You probably don’t know this one…it was My Bodyguard, in 1980. Brent and Reid were my accomplices!

      • Ha!! Good choice! I’m surprised that was PG tho. Or maybe I’m thinking of a different movie. ;o

      • Todd B

        I made sure I was remembering right and checked…yep, it was PG. Are you maybe thinking of The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner?

  3. geelw

    It’s actually interesting to watch this film with both Equinox (1969) and The Evil Dead to see crisscrosses in terms of a few thematic elements. This one’s also a decent low budget “dream” flick (like Invaders From Mars, nudge, nudge).

    • Todd B

      I’ve always been interested in checking out Equinox…but don’t worry, Invaders from Mars is still first on my list! (Who knows, maybe I’ll surprise you and watch the 1986 version instead!).

      • geelw

        Ooh, that’s a challenge, lol. While the remake has better effects and Karen Black, the art direction and set designs in the original make it work more effectively. But the Martian head in a globe from the oldie is still effectively freakier (to me, at least).

      • Todd B

        I was madly in love with Karen Black back in the 1970s, so that would be the only reason I’d watch the ’86 remake now. However, I think I’ll stick with checking out the original; I agree, that head in a globe IS quite the freakfest.

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From the Monolith: 123

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