“You think when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!”
Phantasm is, essentially, one of the best horror films and franchises outside of the top tier of Nightmare, Friday the 13th, Halloween and so on… A definitive cult classic, Phantasm is almost 40 years-old, but still creepy and weird as ever.
In 1979, Don Coscarelli unleashed the world of Phantasm, but there would be a nine year wait until the mythology would be developed and expanded upon in a first sequel. In the original, teenager Mike Pearson (Michael Baldwin) is surrounded by death in and outside of the family. Mike is, to an extent, in a turmoil of self discovery, identity, and situations in general. After the death of his parents and family friend, and with the added likelihood of his older and cooler brother, Jody (Bill Thornberry), leaving town and his own brother behind, Mike is debating where he stands in life at the moment. Only family friend and ice cream vendor, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), looks set to stay. Though the sequels would have an increased centralisation on skullet merchant and cult favourite, Reggie, the original Phantasm centralised upon a young Mike.
Adding to his fragile mindset, Mike is corrupted by witnessing and engaging with a series of extraordinarily strange and totally bizarre events, contributing to the surrealism within Phantasm. The leader of the bizarre in Phantasm is the Morningside mortician and very tall gentleman, The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) – yes, that IS his name. The iconography of the franchise has since been attributed to the Tall Man’s antics, costume, dialogue and so on in the original film.
Like any good horror film or franchise, Phantasm’s standout image is of its out-of-this-world antagonist: The Tall Man. The Tall Man is far from your average serial killer, as in the first Phantasm, he is presented in lifting a full-sized coffin (inclusive of a corpse) off the ground and back into his hearse… after the funeral has taken place! Can Mike convince Jody and Reggie of The Tall Man’s suspicious activities or will they just rubbish Mike’s warnings as a defence mechanism for grief?
Putting aside the spectacle of The Tall Man’s strength, there is the added spectacle of his weapon(s) of choice: flying silver spheres loaded with sharp blades and a drill. A spectacle like no other, the action of the sphere in motion is significantly underused in Phantasm when compared to its usages in the four sequels. Its lack of usage in the original Phantasm, however, is perfect in the prevention of Phantasm transcending into an over-gory occasion as sometimes experienced in Phantasm II.
Despite being an independent film, there does not appear to be any limitations on good quality production and post-production, as for the majority, Phantasm boasts a nice, fun range of special effects and practical effects throughout, even for the now-prehistoric standards of the 1970s. Furthermore, Phantasm‘s lack of expansive filming locations is a signifier of its low budget, but contributes to the intimacy within this family-centred horror, whereas the sequels lack the same intimacy as the franchise developed into a road-movie horror to a degree.
Thematically and morally, Phantasm is quite an important filmic text. The presentation of Mike’s desperation and anxiety during times of darkness and potential darkness is fascinating, as audiences are presented with a clearly scared, but unbelievably brave young teenager. Additionally, the notion of the main character in Phantasm being a fair bit younger than the heroes and victims of its contemporaries, established a much stronger connection with the young than other horrors did, and subsequently presented a stronger challenge to young viewers too.
Ultimately, Phantasm will probably never be the go-to film for casual horror fans. In this Halloween month, however, casual or hardcore horror fan, you should be watching Phantasm (and heck, the sequels too), be it your first time or weekly viewing.
READ MORE: Halloween (1978) – Spooktober