-Written by Greg B
Phantasm opens in the depths of a graveyard, where a busty blonde is busy straddling a long haired, sneaker wearing dude named Tommy. After the two teens get their mutual rocks off, the blonde pulls a knife and sinks it into the guys gut before turning into an anemic looking, scary man. Everyone at Tommy’s funeral reckons he took his own life but young Mike (Micheal Baldwin) is suspicious that Tommy’s demise and several other unexplained deaths in the town are linked to the brooding local mortician.
During a trip to a candle lit house containing a creepy old fortune teller that communicates psychically with her daughter (a concept that seems to have been pinched outright by the TV show Carnival), Mike reveals his fears that his brother is going to leave him as his parents did when they passed away. The fortune teller attempts to alleviate his fears, and after an odd incident involving a black box and Mike’s hand, states that it is fear itself that has the power to destroy.
When Jody gets friendly with the lady in lavender (Kathy Lester, the same blonde siren from the opening scene), she drags him to the graveyard. However, unbeknownst to the randy couple, Mike is in close pursuit as he fears that Jody is about to run out on him. Before the lady in lavender can become all stab happy again, Mike, screaming hysterically, runs past the couple. He claims that a brown hooded dwarf has attacked him, something which Jody dismisses as nonsense. But upon returning to the spot where he had been making out, there is no sign of the blonde bombshell. After another incident involving those pesky hooded dwarfs and Jody’s car, Mike decides that if no one is going to believe him, he should take matters into his own hands. Will Jody finally wake up to whats going on or will the demented tall man continue his nefarious activity?
Phantasm is a film that taps into primal fears of abandonment, death and fear itself really. It is apparent that this is a movie full to the brim with ideas and yet it never crosses the line or becomes downright ludicrous. A lot of this is down to Don Coscarelli’s assured direction, but the all round quality performances by all of the principal cast makes the movie something special. The film is exceptionally well cast and Baldwin delivers a great perfomance as the plucky and resourceful Mike (if hes not fixing his brothers car, he’s fashioning a gun out of a hammer, a shotgun shell and some selotape).
Meanwhile, Jody has a young Kurt Russel-like charisma and series fan favourite Reggie Bannister is winsome as the friendly ice cream deliverly guy/ rock guitarist. Camaraderie and brotherly bickering adds a human touch to the proceedings and mixes touches of humour to what is actually quite a dark plot (having to open your dead parent’s coffins is not exactly rich in comic potential).
The three actors share great onscreen chemistry and at times the film came across as The Outsiders with midget killers, death orbs and parallel universes.
On a technical level Phantasm is rough around the edges, the film sometimes looks as though it was cut with a hatchet. Occassionally actors drift off mic, the ADR is weak, a lot of the time parts of the frame are overexposed and the many headstones that litter the flick are clearly constructed out of some paper mache. Yet it wouldn’t be fair to hold these flaws against the film, for the most part it rises above its small budget and delivers thrills and chills in equal measure.
Fred Myrow’s and Malcolm Seagrave’s cymbal driven synthy, score has a great icy 1970s horror flick feel to it, although it does drift toward an ill advised giallo style funk rock farting towards the end of the film.
Interestingly enough, the directors mom designed the film (and adapted it into a novel in 2005) and she does a great job considering the films modest budget.
The hooded, sharp clawed midgets that attack Mike and Jody are like a cross between one of Cronenberg’s naveless brood children and an evil jawa, while the chrome, flying death-orb that messes up a morgue attendant goodo causing him to piss himself (a shot that got Coscarelli in hot water with the MPAA), reminds one of a smaller version of the evil beach ball from The Prisoner if it had been designed by the yuppies from OCP. The special makeup effects (especially the tall man’s still animated severed finger that seems to leak custard for some reason) have that gooey, splatter-infused Evil Dead charm to them.
This is a likeable horror flick, and clearly a labour of love for Coscarelli who produced, directed, shot and edited the film. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t even Coscarelli’s debut feature (his first effort Jim, the World’s Greatest, was produced when he was just nineteen thus making him the youngest director to have a feature distributed by a major studio). Its refreshing to see a film where you actually care about the fate of the protagonists. Now call me old fashioned, but it is welcome and increasingly rare, when you consider the sleazy jock assholes who we are expected to root for in a lot of contemporary horror (think of Hostel or the recent V/H/S [im sorry but I found it hard to get into the film based on the fact that the characters were such jerks that I kinda… ahem…wanted them all to die]). A huge cult fan base has grown around the Phantasm series and it has spawned three sequels, all of which have been directed by Coscarelli. This is no surprise, as there is an endearing charm to the film that renders its moments of horror even more effective.
Although the plot goes a little haywire towards the third act (drawing slightly from a Richard Matheson penned Twilight Zone episode ‘Little girl Lost’) and the final twist is a little bit of a cop out that ends the film on a surprsingly bleak note, Phantasm is still a highly ambitious and strikingly original film that comes recommended.