Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Kathy Lester, Terrie Kalbus, Bill Cone
(out of 4)
WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.
Phantasm: the delusion of a disordered mind, a phantom, a spirit, a ghost.
If we were to keep in mind the definition of the movie’s title (as seen in the trailer for Phantasm II), decoding Don Coscarelli’s late 70s cult horror flick isn’t too difficult an undertaking. I think it’s helpful to look at the first film as a string of metaphors; it would explain the changing reality and surreal circumstances the protagonist Mike finds himself in. Phantasm has plenty of subtext to chew on, and impresses me a bit with its inability to be properly pigeonholed into any single genre – it mixes equal parts horror and science fiction acceptably and has some inventive ideas (at least for a film that almost seems like a polished-up Ed Wood screenplay!) I think that the movie is almost undone – not quite, but almost – by a plodding middle section, silly monster dwarfs, and unearned narrative shifts at the end that come dangerously close to derailing the whole thing. In the end, I guess I forgive its flaws – sure, Phantasm is trash, but it’s very good trash. Spend enough time in the rough and you’ll find a few diamonds.
13 year old Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) just lost his parents, and has a nagging feeling that his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) is going to take off and leave him with his aunt. After the death of friend Tommy (stabbed by blonde female seductress Kathy Lester), Mike starts seeing strange things happening around Morningside Cemetery, like weird dwarfs running around (they look like Jawas, probably not an accident), and a tall, creepy undertaker (Angus Scrimm) who can do impossible things like lifting a 500 pound coffin by himself. The local fortune teller informs Mike that fear is the true killer (after giving him a little hand-in-the-box Gom jabbar in an obvious Dune nod). After Mike unwittingly interrupts coitus between his bro and the blonde killer-in-lavender (unknowingly saving his life) and is later attacked by the hooded little people, he decides to run off to the mausoleum to see for himself. There, he encounters the tall man and his weapon of choice – a flying metal sphere that drills into your forehead and sucks the blood out the other end. (That’s nifty). After severing the tall man’s fingers with his trusty knife, Mike grabs one of the yellow-blood-stained things for evidence. Jody’s doubts are assuaged upon visual inspection, but before they can go to police the finger transforms into a very large, pissed off, and cheesy-looking flying bug. Given how the town only seems to have a handful of people in it anyway, we are left with only one choice – Mike, Jody, and their friend – the local ice cream man and musician Reggie (the incomparable Reggie Bannister) must band together to stop the evil on their own. SPOILER ALERT: The last half hour of Phantasm reveals the tall man’s nature as an alien from another dimension, with a plan to crush the bodies of the recently dead to about a third their size and ship ‘em off to his home planet to use as slaves.
There are a few possibilities here. One is that teenage Mike has just lost his parents, and is creating various threats to the rest of his family in his mind (the ending would seem to justify this conclusion). Throughout the movie, his fears are made manifest and he must eventually face them (not always related to death – the evil lady-in-lavender could represent Mike’s fear of his brother being taken away by a girlfriend or wife). In other words, Mike has to grow up early (Driving a car? Working on engines? Drinking a beer? Making a bomb to escape a trap? This must be the coolest 70s kid in the world!) The strange habit of Jody and Mike constantly hanging around the cemetery speaks to their fascination with death. In this area, Coscarelli successfully exploits the creepy sides of societal customs involving burying our dead – fear of coffins, graves, and hearses, with the mortician serving as an unwelcome reminder that our final destination may truly suck. In another manner, the Tall Man could be seen as the devil, and the killer Jawas are the souls of the unsaved (turned to demons), being trotted off to hell (why else would the Tall Man’s planet have red skies, extreme heat and gravity?) On a related note, I particularly liked the vibrating space gate (and Reggie’s attempt to tame it like he would a tuning fork) – there are many visually inventive shots like that one in Phantasm.
The movie doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, unlike the Hemi’ Cuda used in the film. The middle meanders a bit; we’re treated to the brothers playing tag-team as one goes off stupidly to investigate the bad guy’s territory while the other stays in the house. The freaky midgets in robes come off as more silly than scary (as does the killer insect sequence). And in the last few scenes, Coscarelli constantly pulls the rug out from under us, telling us none of it is real, until changing his mind again. The dream gimmick is unnecessary and cliched to boot – we should all know by now that cinema can be read non-literally; does the director really need to hand-hold? Fortunately, we have Angus Scrimm who injects real menace into his character, Reggie Bannister (who would have been Bruce Campbell if there had not already been one), great theme music (from Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave), and a visually intriguing story that may very well be the best adaptation of Plan 9 from Outer Space ever made. There’s something to be said for that.
- Bill Gordon