Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on June 1, 1979
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 appreciation—should 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)