Februrary 19, 2013

Phantasm (1979)
Starring Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, and Angus Scrimm

You write a good entry, boy

Comments:  Okay now Phantasm is an interesting little movie.  It is one of those movies that has a ton of diehard fans who will defend it to the death, yet among the general populace it isn't really all that well known.   It came out right in the middle of the late 70's/early 80's horror boom, which is what some people call the golden age of modern horror movies, yet it never really crossed over into the mainstream like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street.  And every time I watch it I waffle between whether it should have been a bigger movie than it was, or if America got it right and it is exactly as well known as it deserved.

I actually have a funny story about my experience with Phantasm.

I was one of those kids who grew up in the 80's and the only section of the video store I ever hung out in was the horror movie section.  My family would walk into a Blockbuster Video store to pick out a movie for the weekend, and my parents would go right to the drama section, my brother would go right to the comedy section, and I would make a beeline directly for the horror section.  I have no idea why, that was just the only section in the store that really fascinated me.  Which was silly, because when you are seven years old obviously your parents aren't going to rent a movie for family night called "The Driller Killer" or "I Feast On Your Flesh."

But hey, seven year olds are the ultimate optimists.  For years I lived under the impression that I would one day see every single one of these movies in these scary looking boxes.  And for the most part, I actually did.  Eventually.  

It just didn't happen during family night.

And here is where we come to my Phantasm experience.

In 1987 I was at a drive-in movie with my parents, and a preview came on the screen for a new horror movie.  It looked interesting.  Corpses!  Flying steel balls!  Zombies!  People having their brains sucked out with a drill!  A big scary tall guy walking around a mortuary!  Hey, awesome!  My parents, of course, couldn't have cared less but I was intrigued by this new movie that was coming out in theaters.  It looked like the type of thing that would be right up my alley.

And then the title flashed up on the screen:  PHANTASM 2.

Wait, what?  

I was like, um how can there be a Phantasm 2 if I have never heard of a Phantasm 1?

I went back to Blockbuster the next day and I walked through the horror section to see what Phantasm 1 was.  And our Blockbuster didn't have it.  Weird.  How can a movie have a sequel if the original wasn't even popular enough to be at the video store?

I went to other video stores and nobody else had Phantasm either.  And by now it had become a bit of a quest.  Now I had to find out what Phantasm was. Because remember, there was no such thing as the internet in 1987.  I couldn't just look this shit up.  If you wanted to know what a movie was, you had to ask somebody who had seen it, or you had to find a copy of it yourself in a video store.  And if you know anything about Phantasm, well you will know there is a pretty good chance that my parents didn't see it in a theater.  So I was kind of off on my own here.

By the way, don't look up

I didn't wind up seeing Phantasm for years.  But I always knew about it.  It was one of those movies that just kind of stuck in my head for about a decade.  Because I always thought it was odd that you would have a sequel to a movie that wasn't really even all that popular.  Let alone a movie that nobody my age had ever heard of.  Again, remember, this was 1987, sequels were still kind of a rare thing back then.  Every other movie wasn't a part of a franchise like they are now.  Back then you had to be a pretty big deal to even be considered for a sequel.  You basically had to be a James Bond movie or a Rocky movie.

An obscure little horror movie that wasn't all that big a deal in 1979?  And now somebody suddenly pulls a sequel for it out of their butt eight years later, in 1987?  Things like that really didn't happen back then.

What I guess I am saying here is that I didn't grow up with Phantasm.  I am too young to have seen it in theater, and it was never a part of my life as a kid other than "hey I heard they made a sequel to it!"  I didn't see it at all until I was in my 20's.  But when I saw it for the first time I immediately understood why people would have liked it.  And I immediately understood why it warranted a sequel.  It might not be the best movie in the world, and it might not be the scariest movie in the world.  But it sure is a fun one.  And it sure is a, uh, unique one.

Phantasm is the king of the WTF movies

Phantasm is the story of two brothers, Jody and Mike.  They live by themselves because their parents have died.  And one day they notice that some odd things are going on down at the nearby mortuary.  

They can't quite put their finger on what is going on over there, but one of the guys that they know died last week.  And Mike (the younger brother) noticed that some weird shit was going on after the funeral.

In particular, there was this really weird looking tall man who was walking around carrying a 600 pound casket with one hand.

Mike doesn't really know what this means.  But he sees the Tall Man walking around acting strange, and he decides to investigate.

Mike and Jody

And, well,  if there is one thing you should know if you have watched horror movies, it is don't go visit the creepy old mortuary at night.

Phantasm is one of those movies that is nearly impossible to describe to somebody who has never seen it before.  Because it isn't really a horror movie.  And it isn't really a science fiction movie.  Hell, it is barely even a theater movie.  It is more or less a bunch of college kids who raised 300k and who decided to find out how movie cameras work.  To say that the budget is low on this movie is almost an insult to movies with actual budgets.  Phantasm is fun, but it is really about a half step higher than a film class project.  In particular, the acting is atrocious.  At times, watching Phantasm is like watching a Tobias Funke audition video.

We're having a fire!.... sale

Phantasm is an odd little quirky movie from the late 70's that doesn't make any sense.  Nothing in this movie makes sense.  Nothing in this movie even comes remotely CLOSE to making sense.  At certain points in the film the director (Don Coscarelli) thinks he is making a horror movie, at other times he seems to think he is making a sci fi.  And then at other times he seems to think he is making a gripping family drama.  It just sort of bounces back and forth between genres.

The acting is non existent, there is no budget whatsoever, and it stars a bunch of people you have never heard of.  Oh, and the special effects are laughable.  In short, there is no reason on paper that you should ever watch this movie.  

Well, except for one.

I don't know how Don Coscarelli pulled it off, but despite all these flaws, despite the fact that this movie has nothing going in its favor, and everything going against it, despite the fact that it has no budget whatsoever, it just kind of works.

I don't know how it works.  But it does.  That's the best way I can describe it.  

It is a dumb little horror movie that doesn't make any sense.  But it just kind of works.


Phantasm is one of those movies that I have been fascinated with over the years.  I love reading about it, and I particularly love reading stories of what people thought about it when it originally came out.  Because like I said at the start of my review, there are people out there who REALLY love Phantasm.  I have seen people who will defend this movie as passionately as you will see Star Wars fans defend The Empire Strikes Back.  There is a hardcore (if still somewhat small) base of Phantasm fans out there who not only made this movie a semi big hit when it first came out in 1979, but they kept its memory alive so long that they actually talked the studio into producing a sequel nearly a decade later.  And then there was another sequel.  And then there was a third sequel.

Yes, Phantasm is that quirky little movie that was never a big hit, yet for some inexplicable reason it produced three sequels.  I haven't seen most of them, so I can't tell you if they are any good or not (I am guessing they aren't).  But hey, for a quirky homemade horror movie made on a 300k budget to produce more than one sequel, well pretty much only a diehard passionate fan base could be the explanation for something like that.  

And you kind of have to respect that.

Welcome to Phantasm World

I have seen Phantasm a bunch of times over the years, and while I would not agree with its supporters that it is one of the best horror movies ever, it is still a movie that I will always recommend to people.  I will recommend it because it is fun.  And I will recommend it because it is creepy.  Don Coscarelli might not be the best dialogue writer I have ever seen in my life, and his storylines sure don't make sense most of the time, but the man sure could do atmosphere.  In fact I would say that the atmosphere in Phantasm is right up there with the atmosphere in Halloween.  The minute those kids set foot in that mortuary the whole movie is just odd and atmospheric and creepy and weird.  

And of course I will always recommend this movie because of Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man.  I mean, just take one look at him and you will understand.  The Tall Man became an instant horror movie icon for a reason.

Here, catch

Is Phantasm one of the best horror movies of all time?  Should it be ranked up there with the Halloweens and the Night of the Living Deads and the Nightmare on Elm Streets?  If you ask me, I would say no.  I mean it is good but it is not THAT good.  But at the same time there are a lot of horror movies that are not as good as Halloween that I would still recommend anyway, and this is definitely one of them.

If nothing else, you should see Phantasm because it was a very influential horror movie.  And because it still has a bunch of diehard fans out there.  And because it was apparently the talk of teenagers in America when it originally came out in 1979.  From what I have read about it, Phantasm was apparently the Wayne's World of its day.  It was the movie that nobody over the age of 25 gave two shits about, but apparently all the teenagers couldn't get enough of.  

And yes, the movie is still pretty powerful.  It still holds up pretty well.   Even if, yes I will admit it, the fly in the drain scene looks downright laughable now.

Worst.  Grandpa.  Ever.

As I said before, Phantasm shouldn't work, but it does.  I have no idea how it works, I have no idea how -these- people in -this- movie with -these- effects turns out to be watchable, but it just kinda is.  And if you watch it enough times, it is one of those movies that actually starts to grow on you.  I can honestly say that even though I didn't grow up with Phantasm, I have seen it enough times by now that it feels like I did.  This is one of those movies that I actually take it personally when people talk shit about it.  Which actually happens a lot, if you read through the IMDB.

Jody, I hope it never stops being the 70's.

Is Phantasm a masterpiece?  Is it one of the greatest horror movies of all time?   Not even close.  But I enjoy it just for the fact that it exists.  There aren't enough original, weird, atmospheric, quirky movies in the world.  And there especially aren't enough original, weird, atmospheric, quirky movies in the world that somehow found a way to weasel out a bunch of sequels.  So for that reason and that reason alone you should at least know what Phantasm is.  When a movie has this many devoted fans in the world there is generally a reason for it.

In my opinion there are three reasons why everyone should appreciate Phantasm.  You should appreciate it because of the music (which is awesome), you should appreciate it because of the atmosphere (which again, is awesome), and you should appreciate it because of The Tall Man.  Who is quite simply one of the greatest horror movie characters of all time.  Oh and you should appreciate it for the flying silver ball to the head.

Anything else?  Well don't expect too much.  

But still, those first four things Phantasm does REALLY well, and you can't say that about very many horror movies.

If you know what to expect going into it, Phantasm is a really cool movie.

Next time, duck.

P.S.  By the way, here is one of my favorite movie theme songs of all time.  Here is the regular version of the Phantasm theme (which is awesome), and here is the disco version of the Phantasm theme (which is even better). The disco version was actually released on limited edition vinyl back in 1979.  I love the disco version so much that I actually play it for trick or treaters every Halloween.  I blast it so loud that you can hear it up and down our neighborhood every October 31st.

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Phantasm:

A Creepy Little Dream... Or Is It? - 19 April 2011
Every decade or so, the horror genre gets re-defined by an iconic movie. In the 30s, it was Universal with their classics. In the 50s, it was giant animals and atomic-age monsters. In 1960, it was PSYCHO. In 1968, it was NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. in the 70s, audiences witnessed the rise of wild and unhinged directors with equally unhinged movies: "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", HALLOWEEN, DAWN OF THE DEAD, SUSPIRIA and ZOMBIE all terrorized audiences in their own ways. Near the end of the 70s, along came this little movie made on a shoestring budget about two brothers dealing with a mysterious mortuary. At the very beginning of the movie, we're given what appears to be a gratuitous sex scene. But at the end of it, we realize something more sinister is going on. From that point on, anything could happen, and a lot does. The plot makes virtually no sense (as other critics have noted) and that's kind of the point. Just look at the title: PHANTASM means "dream" or "nightmare." And the best way to view this movie is through the logic of a nightmare. Sure it makes sense while you're asleep. But upon waking up, it seems absurd. The appearance of the Tall Man is a truly unsettling moment, as are numerous others. The most famous of which involves a flying silver ball. Imagination brims all over the place, which is one of the benefits of a small independent production: It dares to risk trying new things. Watch this movie and be prepared for a thrill ride through a nightmare world!

the most proudly incomprehensible film ever made - 13 March 2000
this movie takes the prize for boldly spitting in the face of such old standbys as plot, structure, character development, narrative arc, tone, reason, common sense, temporal cohesiveness, and logic more effectively and with more glee than any other film ever made. the story elements (namely, a funeral home, a tall man, a silver ball with a drill on it, a killer housefly, a musclecar, an ice cream man, killer jawas, and a tuning fork) are not really combined so much as stuffed into 88 minutes, and the scariest thing about the movie is that this stream-of-consciousness approach to horror filmmaking actually works. a creepy location, some genuinely startling imagery (the funeral home interior shots are downright kubrickian), and a lack of any exposition/explanation keep you wondering what in god's name is going on until the last frame. hats off to writer/director don coscarelli for pulling it off -- it's a great time.

Nightmarish dream logic and some powerful, gruesome images make it better than it should be - 26 June 2005
This seems to be a case in which the relative paucity of the budget worked for the film instead of against it. The director was forced to keep things pretty lean and focused instead of indulging in a lot of fancy flourishes and details, so he didn't waste any screen time or film with stuff that wouldn't help tell his story.

Admittedly, the plot is so thin, and the room the budget leaves the director to work is so spare, that often the movie drags, or simply wastes air time. The body count and SFX occurrences are spread quite thin, as horror movies go, in fact...I remember maybe five deaths and a maximum of three-to-four minutes of actual special effects.

But what the movie DOES have going for it is: atmosphere. Almost from the beginning, "Phantasm" does a great job of instilling dread and anxiety into the viewer. The setting of the plot, a small, isolated town, with weird goings on at the local mortuary, is guaranteed to unsettle even the most matter-of-fact, unimaginative viewer after a while. And because the plot and crisis events are so thin, when something awful DOES happen on screen, there is very little to muffle or diminish the impact of what you just saw as the movie goes on.

Years after I first saw "Phantasm" as a young man, four major images still stuck with me: the "Tall Man" leering at the camera, oozing menace from every pore; the Sphere burrowing into the henchman's forehead and spewing his brains out the back; the dismembered finger leaking yellow fluid all over and turning into an insect; and the hellish vision of the alternate dimension beyond the twin pillars which the hero sees before his friend manages to yank him back.

That's pretty good shooting for a low budget film from the 70s. If I were the director, I would be proud to be known for this movie.

Not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, and not for the SFX junkies who cut their teeth and had their expectations molded by multi-million dollar extravaganzas like the Dark Castle remakes ("13 Ghosts", "Ghost Ship" "THe House On Haunted Hill". etc). If you have some patience, and can accept the movie on its own terms, "Phantasm" will make you squirm.


A masterpiece of the creepy and bizarre - 2 June 2008
Towards the end of the 1970s horror was in an interesting trend. A lot of genre films featured a supernatural angle. Films like 'Carrie' and 'Suspiria' took viewers into a world where power was the ultimate dark force. Another one of the best examples of this is Don Coscarelli's 'Phantasm,' a low budget late 70s horror/fantasy film that's impossible to forget once you've seen it. It's one of those films that plays with your imagination rather than shows you blood, guts, and big ugly monsters. It's like one big, long, surreal and terrifying nightmare.

Pros: A fairly original concept. Good performances from a very likable cast. A somewhat dated, but still very effectively eerie musical score. Some really nightmarish images. The Tall Man is one of the creepiest villains ever thought up. Predictable this film is not. The film has a really sinister feel about it, especially in the night scenes. Well-paced. A great set-up for number 2.

Cons: Doesn't make a lot of sense. One really cheap effect involving a monster fly.

Final thoughts: Your brain may hurt a little after watching this strange film, but in this case that's not really a bad thing. It's nice to see some filmmakers try new and interesting things in the genre instead of just churning out the same crap a lot of others are doing. Watch this one alone with the lights off and see if you can sleep afterwards.

30 years later and still rockin' - 6 January 2009
OK, I saw this movie in 1979. I was 13 at the time, just like Mike in the movie. Well, I liked it a lot. I found it superb, flawless, scary, and I could go on and on. But I was 13 years old.

I never saw "Phantasm" again, not even a segment on TV, never. Today, 30 years later, I watched it again with my wife. Scared? Sure I was scared. Scared to discover that the perfect movie that I still remembered from my skate and moped days was - in reality - a very mediocre film, with low budget, bad acting and embarrassing special effects.

I was wrong. Definitely wrong. I liked it again, and this time I appreciated things that I couldn't notice when I first saw it, like the ingenious use of light, cut scenes and flashbacks (or forward?). The acting is not superb, but it doesn't matter. Effects are a little too-low budget, but again it doesn't matter. What's really important is the atmosphere that Coscarelli creates, full of dark forebodings yet very normal. Fantastic. It was a pleasure to hear the first notes of its "Carpenterish" score, and to see the Tall Man again. As the movie went on, I remembered every scene, it was just like tasting a cake little by little.

They don't make movies like this anymore. My advice? Highly recommended!!!

Crazy drug-addict B-shlock horror classic mania. - 25 October 2008
This is a much-revered horror classic, and it's easy to see why. It's supernatural, it's edgy and it's also very dark and grainy, both in picture quality and mood! What they don't tell you is how this movie basically comes off as a long, elaborate crack fantasy, filled with bright lights, magic and...well, yellow mustard blood. But it is pretty creepy at times, with decent performances from all the actors for their respective genre and some very good atmospheric moments, like pretty much every time you see the Tall Man.

And speaking of Angus Scrimm, he is damned creepy here. Seriously, you would be running and screaming too if you saw this guy running after you. That's right, running. He puts the typical laughable horror stereotype of walking serial killers catching their sprinting victims down with ease. Great performance.

Phantasm doesn't make much sense, and it is pretty thin at times in terms of plot, but it is a fun watch, and essential if you're a B-horror fan. Get this one this Halloween, and make sure to keep the lights on...

Whoa - 20 November 2007
"You play a good game, boy...but the game is finished. Now you die!" Sports the #2 scariest ending ever. Terrible acting, an original story, great lines, superb music, and some really messed up other stuff like evil dwarfs, an insanely tall mortician, a flying metal ball that performs lobotomies, and a huge fly make this an 8/10 for me.

Sometimes I find myself laughing (mainly at the lead's acting and its dated look), and sometimes I find myself genuinely creeped out. It's also totally original and inventive. Loved it. I wish there were more movies like this.

Recommended. :)

* My favorite trivia about Phantasm:

* The film was originally rated X by the MPAA (on four different occasions) because of the silver sphere sequence involving a man urinating on the floor after falling down dead. After Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin made a telephone call in a favor to a friend on the board, the rating was changed from the (commercially non-viable) X-rating to R. Champlin's positive review was quoted on the film's promotional posters.

* Don Coscarelli rented all of the filming equipment used to make this movie, always on Fridays so he could use it all weekend and return it on Mondays, all the while only actually having to pay one day's rental on the equipment.

* The iconic bed nightmare sequence was number 25 on the cable channel Bravo's list of the "100 Scariest Movie Moments".

* The mansion used for the exterior shots of the mausoleum was also seen in the James Bond film A View to a Kill and also the 1976 horror film Burnt Offerings.

* The dwarves were played by children.

* The "ball" scenes were simple special effects. The sphere was being guided around a corner by a fishing line. The sphere was thrown from behind the camera by a baseball pitcher and then the shot was printed in reverse. The ball attaching itself to the man's head was filmed by sticking it on his head, then pulling it off, and printing the shot in reverse.

* The genesis of the story came to Don Coscarelli in a dream. One night, being in his late teens, he dreamed of fleeing down endlessly long marble corridors, pursued by a chrome sphere intent on penetrating his skull with a wicked needle. There was also a quite futuristic "sphere dispenser" out of which the orbs would emerge and begin chase.

* Don Coscarelli got the idea of The Tall Man's living severed finger while drinking from a styrofoam cup. He punched his finger through the bottom and started moving it. He loved the visual effect of it and decided to include it in the story.

* Although being very tall, standing at 6 feet 4 inches, Angus Scrimm wore suits several sizes smaller and boots with lifts inside that added 3 inches to his height.

* Co-Producer Paul Pepperman approached Angus Scrimm at a sneak preview of Kenny & Company and told him that Don Coscarelli had written a role for him in his next production. When informed that he would be playing an alien, Scrimm became very excited and immediately asked to know what country his character would hail from. Pepperman said: "He's not from another country, he's from another world."

* There are several references to Frank Herbert's Dune, including a bar named "Dune" and a scene where Mike is forced to insert his hand into a black box that inflicts pain as part of a test.

* The title was changed to "The Never Dead" for Australian audiences as not to confuse it with the popular Aussie sex comedy World of Sexual Fantasy, which was also known as Fantasma.

* My favorite scene in Phantasm:

Everyone talks about the flying silver ball scene, but I am a big fan of the opening shots when Mike is exploring the mortuary.  That is just creepy.  I have never walked around in a mortuary before and not thought of Phantasm.

Phantasm at the IMDB

Phantasm at Wikipedia

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