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PHANTASM (1979): Retro Review…From Such Humble Beginnings…

Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister Phantasm

It all started 35 years ago with Don Coscarelli and his stable of young filmmaking friends and actors, a childhood nightmare, and a desire to make a horror movie.  Taking a small budget but big ideas, together they took these elements and made the film into a reality; a reality that has stood the test of time.  Spawning three sequels (with a fourth coming very soon), Phantasm has firmly rooted itself as the stuff of horror legend.

In a small town, Jody Pearson is torn between raising his twelve-year-old brother Mike after the untimely death of their parents and wanting to live a life of his own.  Jody is well-liked in the small community, part of a local musical trio with his friends Tommy and Reggie, the latter also being the town’s friendly ice-cream vendor.  After Tommy’s mysterious death, Jody, Mike, and Reggie find themselves tangled in a dark, twisted web of occurrences:  At Tommy’s funeral, Mike witnesses a tall, fierce-looking man who appears to be an undertaker of sorts stealing the body after the mourners have left; he also finds himself pursued through the dark woods later by small, monstrous attackers.  At first, Jody feels that these things are the product of a young, overactive imagination, but Mike tenaciously seeks to substantiate what he says, and eventually (after a terrifying experience and a narrow escape) comes up with proof that convinces his brother and Reggie that what he says is real.  This propels the friends deeper into the abyss; Jody makes some shocking discoveries of his own, and it’s soon revealed that the “Tall Man” and his minions (of varied forms and terrible threat) have a far more nefarious purpose than simply grave robbing.  Reality itself seems to dissolve and warp at the whim of the Tall Man.  Cars drive themselves.  The dead return from the grave…changed.  People are not at all what they seem.  It becomes increasingly difficult to know what is real, and what may be the darkest of nightmares…

The Tall Man Angus Scrimm

I could talk about the spheres, the dwarves, the gateways…but why?  You Fellow Fans either know about these things, or you’re in the lucky position of being able to discover them for the first time…no way I’m steppin’ on that.

This film created its own self-contained reality that in my opinion still remains unequalled in the genre.  The characters were well-written and acted; the chemistry between the principals is some of the most convincing and natural I’ve seen.  The actors playing the three main “good guys” (Bill Thornbury as Jody, A. Michael Baldwin as Mike, and Reggie Bannister as Reggie) maintain that they became good friends during filming, and it shows.  Throw in the frightening visage and raspy vocal delivery of Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man, and you have a perfect ensemble for this film.  Coscarelli’s script maintains a level of unease throughout, and causes the audience to mistrust what they see; an element that is most effective in the mythos that he’s created.  The direction was aptly done and taut, using the familiar and making it frightening, while keeping a nightmarish quality that keeps you off-balance.

Also serving as editor for the film, Coscarelli had to trim a lot of his original ideas to better fit a standard runtime; the end result of this is that the flick could almost come across as fractured, the cuts haphazard and labored, something that should be a hindrance to any production.  However, this is not the case with Phantasm; on the contrary, Coscarelli’s editorial choices make this element the movie’s greatest strength; the unpredictability of where the story bounces helps keep us in that aforementioned off-balanced state of mind where we find that anything can happen to any of the characters anywhere.  Happy accident, brilliant filmmaking, or both?  Regardless of which you think, the three sequels and upcoming forth are a testament to the staying power of this franchise.  I myself have been a fan since I saw this first one on some premium channel back in the early eighties, and I’m proud to count myself amongst the many, many more devout followers of this one-of-a-kind horror saga.

Phantasm 1979

Saga.  That fits here, you know?  I daresay the Phantasm series is akin to the Lord of the Rings of the horror genre.  We have our bold, loyal heroes…three decades of legend…challenges and labors…victories and losses.  What other franchise has so rich a tapestry, so deep a well of history to draw from?

It’s nothing less than an institution to many of us Fellow Fans…

…and it all started with this one.

Do I have to say I recommend it? =)


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Andrew Thompson

Editor-In-Chief at LeglessCorpse
The Mouse...VP/co-owner of LC Films, Editor-In-Chief of your average guy with what is most likely an unhealthy affinity for horror movies, sci-fi, superheroes, bacon, old cartoons and horror movies. Oh, I almost forgot, I really dig horror movies; new ones, old ones, it matters not; I love 'em. Husband, father, veteran and scribbler. I like bacon as well. The Mouse abides 😉