PHANTASM. Daring and playful B-movie horror
Teenager Mike is tormented by the fact that his older brother Jody is planning to leave home soon, which would be a devastating blow for the boy who was orphaned a few years ago. But something begins to occupy his mind even more – the owner of the funeral home, referred to as the Tall Man due to his tall stature, exhibits extraordinary strength, even lifting a coffin with a body inside by himself one day. As if that weren’t enough, dangerous hooded dwarves guard his workplace at night, and deadly flying spheres equipped with blades and drills. Soon, Mike, Jody, and their friend Reggie uncover the secret behind the numerous deaths and the strange events at Morningside Cemetery.
What a strange film! Clumsy, occasionally incomprehensible, poorly acted, and often sluggish. The charm of Phantasm largely stems from these imperfections, which, at first glance, would place it in the lower echelons of the horror stratosphere. Or they would if it weren’t for the talent of the director, who can transform this seemingly illogical story into something meaningful and turn entertainment into a horror poem worthy of the greatest creators of the genre. At just 23 years old when production began, Coscarelli doesn’t pretend to make ambitious cinema. On the contrary, he throws more and more daring ideas into the mix, further departing from the funeral atmosphere with each scene, bordering on a cinematic dreamlike state. The initial atmosphere, underscored by organ music and the setting, helps the viewer enter a not entirely realistic world that fully reveals itself later in the film.
The very first scene – sex in the cemetery, an act that ends with a man’s death – holds a certain mystery; close-ups of the murderer’s face and the figure of Tall Man standing over the corpse, as well as the nearby funeral home seemingly suspended in darkness. When we see this place in the daytime, it no longer seems as sinister, but death, naturally, still lingers. The director of Phantasm builds his horror on the fear of the cemetery, the underlying tension that accompanies many of us whenever we are there, and also casts doubt on whether our bodies will truly rest in coffins after burial, or if they face a worse fate. However, he takes it two steps further, progressively departing from deeply ingrained fears in our minds to the borderline of a nightmare-like fantasy. Thus, Phantasm appears to be a test of the viewer’s tolerance, accustomed to certain horror film models and solutions. Hooded coneheads, deadly spheres, or a severed finger turned into a small insect-like creature don’t necessarily translate into genuine horror, but they certainly attest to Coscarelli’s imagination as he boldly constructs his phantasmagorical world.
The potential humor that might arise is tempered by the choice of Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) as the main character, a kid whose every action and decision are driven by youthful thinking and nature. Coscarelli had already made two films with children in lead roles before Phantasm, so he clearly knew what he was doing by placing a minor at the center of his blood-soaked performance. The open question is whether we can believe in this youthful perspective – perhaps Mike is merely imagining things, frightened by the atmosphere of the cemetery and still deeply affected by the deaths of his parents. However, it is equally likely that he’s attempting to interest his brother in phenomena from which he himself wouldn’t be able to turn away, let alone leave town. In either case, the sense of loss, whether accomplished or impending, could serve as an impetus to create a phantasmagorical vision of a place where death means not rest but enslavement. The director avoids definitive answers (even in the sequels, distinguishing the real world from the imagined is debatable), suggesting a solution based on the construction of a dream within a dream.
The progressing onirism, as it’s unclear where the nightmare begins or ends, is particularly effective in the first film and is played on multiple levels. The city seems deserted or even dead, almost all female characters resemble each other as blondes, making them hard to distinguish, and the cause-and-effect sequence is disrupted multiple times or excessively stretched. Can we really believe that evil in the form of the Tall Man can be defeated using firearms or other conventional methods?
Angus Scrimm, who plays the eerie mortician, already looks like a not entirely human entity – his sinister voice, his gaze full of hatred with the obligatory raised eyebrow, and, most importantly, his peculiar gait (the hand-waving) combined with his tall stature can send chills down not only children’s spines. His character may seem too exaggerated to evoke fear, but Coscarelli knows precisely how to use the actor’s physical conditions and his distinctive performance to achieve the desired effect. Just recall the slow-motion scene in which Scrimm’s character walks down the street with his incredible step, suddenly stops and turns towards Mike on the other side, staring him straight in the eyes. But a moment later, it appears that perhaps it wasn’t the boy looking at him but the chill coming from an ice cream truck he passed by. This single moment, underscored by the outstanding main theme by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, could account for the considerable success of the Tall Man character as one of the most iconic boogeymen in cinematic horror. But there is more – the animated photography from perhaps a hundred years ago, the dream in which the Tall Man lurks over Mike’s bed, or the final scene of Phantasm with Scrimm eerily illuminated. In comparison to the actor, the titular spheres may seem like props forced into the narrative, even though they can fly, bore into a person, and then drain blood, leaving the poor victim dead in a puddle of his own urine. Such creatures they are.
Coscarelli employs various methods of frightening, starting from typical horror iconography to classic jump scares and even more original techniques. The frames are meticulously planned, almost geometrically perfect, which can be unsettling, especially when the main antagonist is placed right in the center. In such cases, he seems to dominate the screen, not allowing himself to be pushed into the background. The bright marble walls of the funeral home convey a chilling atmosphere, perfectly suited for the Tall Man, and the sterility of the room with the mysterious containers pushes realism into the background, allowing the fantastical conventions to take center stage. Not everything is coherent, some effects have aged, and they might even provoke laughter, but it cannot be denied that the atmosphere created in Phantasm by the future creator of “Bubba Ho-Tep” is unique and irreplaceable.
In Phantasm, you can feel the love for cinema in every scene, in every seemingly absurd idea, in the brazen playfulness with the audience. Coscarelli’s film can comfortably stand alongside Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, other famous horrors made under what seemed like haphazard conditions. What all three of these titles have in common is the deep affection of their creators for the genre, boundless energy and imagination, and the ability to overcome budget limitations. However, unlike his colleagues, Phantasm never surrenders in its efforts to maintain seriousness, avoiding both pastiche (Raimi) and parody (Jackson). In the sequels, Coscarelli will forgo this consistency, not avoiding the entertainments of 1980s cinema and the genre looseness characteristic of the next decade. Surrealism will only be visible in increasingly convoluted plot ideas, while losing along the way the specific atmosphere of the original and its beautiful, childlike naivety. The forthcoming fifth and final installment, for which the creator of the original wrote only the screenplay, is unlikely to change this aspect. However, it’s still worth waiting, not just to find out how the epic battle with the Tall Man concludes but also for Angus Scrimm himself, for whom Phantasm V: Ravager was his last film. The actor passed away at the age of 90.