1979 - 88m.
If you’re looking for the American equivalent of Italian director Lucio Fulci’s dream-like, logic-be-damned films such as The Beyond and City of the Living Dead then Don Coscarelli’s 1979 debut, Phantasm, will easily fit that bill. It feels like you’re being thrown into the middle of a fever dream as there’s a nightmarish quality glossed over the entire movie without any real concerns about having a story that actually manages to make much sense.
Apart from dealing with the recent death of their parents, Jody (Bill Thornbury) and his younger teenage brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) are pulled back to the cemetery/mortuary where their folks are spending their eternal rest when one of their friends turns up dead. It seems to be another tragedy to pile on them but things start to get weird when Mike sees the menacing and imposing mortician (Angus Scrimm, in a career defining role) single-handedly lift a coffin into the back of a hearse.
From here the film takes on a kind of “Boy Who Cried Wolf” arc as Mike begins to investigate Morningside Mortuary and discovers that the bodies are being used for nefarious purposes, our ‘tall man’ has ulterior almost supernatural motives, and that if you dig too deeply you’re likely to be attacked by some cloaked little people taken right from the Star Wars playbook (Jawas, anyone?). This forces him to convince and recruit Jody, who is more concerned with his brother’s inability to deal with their parent’s demise and separation anxieties, and their guitar-slinging, ice cream truck driving pal Reggie (Reggie Bannister) to head to Morningside and shut things down.
With a plot that pinballs between low-scale drama and creative, pretty entertaining, set pieces what Coscarelli has done with his $300,000 budget deserves mention. This isn’t a movie you can go into expecting a cut-and-dry experience and when you have such a memorable villain, a dismembered finger than transforms into an evil flying insect, and the iconic flying silver sphere even those who haven’t seen the movies know of, you have to give him some credit. This is the movie that established him and even though he’d follow it up with the swords ‘n’ sorcery romp The Beastmaster (my personal favourite of his filmography), he’d never get away from the Tall Man and his guttural cry of “Boooooyyyy!!”.
On the acting front, almost the entire cast had barely any credits under their belts when this was made and it shows. Baldwin bounces between poor line reads and goofy expressions but somehow manages to nail his teenage naivety at times also. Thornbury plays the older brother perfectly fine but would only appear in Jim Wynorski’s The Lost Empire in-between appearances in this franchise. Bannister with his dopey ice cream man suit and receded hairline ponytail would become, after Scrimm, the face of the Phantasm flicks though he’s not nearly as cool or bad-ass here as he would be in the sequels (in part two he gets to sport a double-barreled double shotgun!). This brings me to the recently departed Scrimm. He truly owns this movie. There’s a good reason that, despite his smaller amount of screen time, he sticks with you. When not chasing down Mike or unleashing his minions, he’s simply scaring the shit out of you with evil stares. He’d go on to be a beloved genre figure and is one of those actors lucky (or cursed, as some may say) to become forever associated with a now iconic character. Scrimm and Bannister would appear in all five Phantasm entries, while Thornbury and Baldwin would sit out the second entry (with James Le Gros taking over as Mike) before returning for all the others.
Phantasm and I have a long history. I first became aware of it upon seeing pictures in the book “Horror Shows” by Gene Wright that I took out from the library at a very young age. From there it was a handful of rentals on VHS as well as it being the first movie I purchased on the new-fangled DVD format and now I’ve had the opportunity to watch it in 4K remastered form on the big-screen. However, it’s not a flick I actually go out of my way to revisit often. While I can fully acknowledge its legacy and what Coscarelli produced at the age of twenty-two, it’s not a film that resonates with me that much. I find it’s like a Frankenstein monster in the sense that some pieces incredibly entertain me while other hunks suffer from budget restraints, weak acting, and over-ambition over actual coherence. I actually enjoy the 1988’s first sequel more but still will not hesitate in telling newcomers to check this one out – it’s kind of a pre-requisite to be a horror fan. (Chris Hartley, 11/2/16)
Directed By: Don Coscarelli.
Written By: Don Coscarelli.
Starring: Bill Thornbury, A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm.