Movie Review: Phantasm (1979)


Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

After his parents die, feathery-haired teenager Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) suffers from nightmares. His older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) is left to take care of him, but when one of Jody’s friends dies Mike spies on the funeral and becomes convinced that something weird is going down at the cemetery. After some reconnaissance, he determines that the sinister mortician- known only as “The Tall Men” and played with relish by Angus Scrimm- is stealing corpses for some unknown (but likely nefarious) purpose, and he commands a legion of dwarfish demons who help defend the funeral parlor. In fear for their own lives, Mike, Jody, and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) decide to investigate and, if possible, take down The Tall Man and his minions.

Phantasm has been on my radar for a while, but once I finally got around to watching it I realized I didn’t actually know much about it, aside from my previous Don Coscarelli experiences with John Dies at the End and Bubba Ho-Tep. It proved to be a wholly different thing than anything I could have anticipated. It begins as a fairly standard 70s horror-thriller, partnering its low budget effects with a dank, gritty aesthetic and sub-standard acting, with nods to Argento and Ray Bradbury. It’s basically just lots of fluffy hair and bell bottoms and a few boobs, all set to a spooky synth soundtrack. But then it starts to pump up the surrealism and everything gets nice and weird, with a never-explained flying death ball, inter-dimensional travel, and yellow blood. I loved the crazy visuals at the funeral parlor- the interior is gorgeously stark and the effects are nicely realized. The climactic sequence is a bizarre, intense, unpredictable excursion through the Tall Man’s traps, and it somewhat makes up for the so-so plotting leading up to it.

There was a lot for me to like in Phantasm, and it’s definitely an impressive feature for limited budget and a 25-year-old writer/director. But I can’t say I loved it. It’s uneven in both narrative and tone, it meanders blandly for most of its first half, and its characters are super boring. Like I just didn’t care that much about Jody and Mike, they’re just these dumb guys who continually rush head-first into a weird paranormal situation, assuming that guns and a can-do attitude will keep them safe. Idiots. I kept hoping that psychic lady from the beginning would come help them, but Coscarelli clearly decided there wasn’t any room in this movie for women characters, since there’s maybe about 10 minutes total with any women onscreen. And two of them are ditzes. And one of them isn’t even real.

I was generally very into that ending though. The wind effect with the barrels? And the dimensional portal? So cool. And I’ll be the first to admit that the Tall Man is fucking creepy, and I looked over my shoulder once or twice later on to make sure he hadn’t followed me out of the movie. These things have been known to happen.


Pair This Movie With: It definitely put me in mind of contemporary low-budget horror-thrillers like Halloween. Or its weirdness reminded me of Beyond the Black Rainbow, which has deliberate 70s/80s horror vibes.

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