Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is the classic story of a diabolical 7-foot tall mortician who morphs into the body of a blonde temptress and lures unsuspecting barflies to their deaths so he can harvest their bodies and shrink them into dwarves that look like Jawas from Star Wars and launch them into another dimension in a pneumatic tube teleporting device that goes through a time-space portal to some mysterious red planet that’s protected by an army of Jawa look-alike slaves that are armed with flying metal spheres that burrow into the brain of any unwanted intruder and drill through the skull until blood shoots straight out like a firehose.
Have I piqued your interest?
The movie centers around a thirteen year-old boy named Mike, who, after losing his parents, constantly follows his older brother Jody around. Peering through the bushes after Jody’s friend’s funeral—a supposed suicide, though we know better from the cold open—Mike sees the tall mortician lift the occupied coffin and place it back in the hearse, a perturbing feat of strength. After once again stalking Jody around the mortuary, Mike notices some strange shapes lurking in the dark. As he attempts to convince Jody that the Tall Man is up to something sinister, they both uncover nightmarish truths that are not of this world.
The first time I saw Phantasm, I was immediately sold, despite how overly ambitious and disjointed the story is, because that’s just it: it’s a phantasm. A figment of Mike’s imagination… or is it? Even after the ending gives us what we think is the answer, we are pulled back into the Tall Man’s grasp, into the arms of ambiguity. The sequels further delve into the lore of the Tall Man, a mysterious and baleful monster disguised as the severe mortician (played by the late Angus Scrimm), but all of them pale in comparison to inexplicable complexity and absurdity of the original. We don’t really have to know what’s going on, it’s a thrill just to be on the ride.
Phantasm is a patchwork of great moments– scary, funny, and downright baffling. It has by no means the most talented cast, but the characters are so very endearing. The story is like one that might come from an imaginative child embellishing on a nightmare they once had, but the mood is perfect and the pacing is steady and never dull. (Actually the movie is based on a nightmare that Coscarelli had, and he directed the film in his early 20’s!). Ultimately though, if Phantasm is to have an overarching theme, it is a movie about grief and fear and how we deal with those overwhelming emotions.
I would say that Phantasm is the one film that really ignited my love for the horror genre. It is easily one of my favorites, not just in horror, but in any genre, and I will always have a special place in my heart for it. Also, Fred Myrow’s theme absolutely SLAPS. (Seriously, go listen. And while you’re at it, check out these 70’s / 80’s flicks for more bangers: Zombi 2, Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, Suspiria, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and of course Halloween, if you’ve somehow never heard that iconic theme).
Here’s what you’ll miss if you cover your eyes:
An anatomically questionable sex position
An incredible jam session
A big whiff of ice cream
Fingers filled with hollandaise sauce
And so much more…