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My In-depth Review/Retrospective of Phantasm

A delve into surrealism (minor spoilers, but nothing major).

Released 1979

The Review:

    Hello and welcome to my first review. Phantasm is a film that is very close to my heart. This is due to the fact that it is one of the few movies that consistently frighten me with each consecutive viewing. Which for me, is rare within the American slasher genre. As I really don't scare so easily. 

    This is in no way an ordinary slasher. The film starts with the traditional storytelling tactic of a prologue which introduces the antagonist who is the shapeshifting, super-strong, enigmatic mortician known as The Tall Man :) (portrayed by Angus Scrimm). He then dispatches his first victim in a very creative way. Which establishes that nothing in this movie is quite as it seems. 

    My only gripe, however is that we barely learn anything about him other than he likes sex (then again, don't we all). In the next scene, which is a funeral for the first victim, it is established that his name was Tommy and he was a friend of two of the protagonists who are Jody (portrayed by Bill Thornbury, Reggie (portrayed by Reggie Bannister), and Jody's younger brother Mike (portrayed by Michael Baldwin). Just to be clear, Reggie is just Jody's friend. The funeral, ironically, takes place in The Tall Man's lair, Morningside Cemetery which has an overwhelming cold, otherworldly feel to it, somewhere between old and modern.

   They really did a great job making the setting look as foreboding as possible with little effort aesthetically. Our attention is then drawn to Mike who is looking in on the funeral where one of The Tall Man's unsettling supernatural abilities are showcased. From this movie and throughout the following four sequels (which continued as far as last year), they always maintained his enigmatic nature. Despite the fact that they let out a little bit of background on the character which is quite admirable to be honest; it is very rare for just about every sequel to be almost as good as the first or even surpass it.

   Then we move on to Mike going to his appointment with his Psychic. She is an old woman who appears to be blind, has mystical powers, and does not speak. She really adds to the atmosphere of the movie as a whole. Mike tells her that he's worried about his brother leaving town without him. 

    She of course comforts him by telling him what he wants to hear. For the record, I'm not sure how I feel about psychics. Mike then tells her about what he saw at the cemetery. After that, she has him take part in an exercise which I believe made him a stronger character. He pays her, then leaves; as soon as the door shuts, the psychic laughs for some reason. 

    I for one found that quite puzzling. To this day, I haven't figured out why she does that. Then we move into one of my favorite scenes. This one features Jody and Reggie performing a song called "Sittin' Here at Midnight" which I believe was an original song written for the movie; it is an acoustic guitar song seemingly reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival (one of my favorite bands). 

   The song is such a favorite among fans, that the two actors perform the song at conventions. After they're done, the camera zooms in on Reggie putting two fingers on a vibrating tuning fork. This is significant because it foreshadows something at the end. We continue to a scene where Jody is catchin' some tail at a local bar with his stalker brother doing what he does best: He bones her at the Morningside Cemetery. 

    I guess this place is a popular hangout spot because they're constantly going back there. Mike runs from something he sees in the woods, blowing his cover. So not only is Mike a stalker, he's a pervert too. Jody then goes after Mike to ask what scared him. Mike explains, but Jody is dismissive as any parental figure in horror movies would be. 

   This scene introduces one of the Tall Man's minions. These are not yellow cheese snacks that the kiddies love. These creatures are one of the creepiest things in the series. Jody gives Mike the keys to Jody's car and tells him to go home. I totally envy this kid, I'd have loved to be able to drive at his age. 

    When Mike arrived home, he starts repairing the car. He's alone at this point and I'm pretty sure you could guess what happens. There's a really funny part in there too, but I'm not gonna tell you what it was. Mike later goes to Morningside alone like the reckless kid he is. Yes, he's a tough kid who could handle himself, but he knows that the Tall Man isn't an ordinary foe; at this point, he's not unlike a neanderthal discovering fire and burning himself several times. 

    I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did up to this point. As expected, it ends quite badly. All I could say to that is, serves him right. The scene also introduces the Tall Man's weapon of choice known as the sentinel sphere or simply among fans, the ball. Mike comes home with evidence to convince Jody that they are in real danger. 

    While discussing what Mike saw, Reggie inadvertently learns of the Tall Man. At this point he was trying to see if Mike can help him with crowd control while selling ice cream. Jody then decides to go after the Tall Man because he's a stupid horror movie character. The relationship between these characters feels very natural, you really get the sense that they've known each other for years. However, to reiterate, I really wish that these characters were smarter. Then again if they were, there'd be no movie. 

      This scene, we move into action movie territory. This would be the first car chase scene in a series of car chases. These car chase scenes would seem to be a tradition in this film series. Afterwards, Jody and Mike learn a shocking truth about these minions. When I saw that part for the first time, I was absolutely floored. 

     Trust me, you would NOT wanna miss it. Jody then calls Reggie on the payphone asking him to bring his ice cream truck by. They load the body into the truck for some reason. Maybe they wanna use it for a ventriloquist act. They go back to Jody's house and they're all on edge. 

    After they get settled in, they discuss what they learned. Then they devise a plan to deal with the antagonist. Jody, being the good brother he is, sends Mike to a safe place (a shop). Here he learns more about the Tall Man from something in the inventory. Frightened by what he learns, he demands to be taken home. 

     Because of a mishap, he's forced to go home on his own. He tells Jody what happened and Jody locks him in his room. The confinement doesn't last long however. We then move on to the final confrontation which I'm not gonna go into detail about at all. All I can really say is that the payoff is absolutely worth it. 

    In conclusion this film is completely nightmare inducing. While at the same time, being very exciting. The director has always maintained that this is a film about the enigma of death and the feeling of grief. Once you see it, you'll know exactly what he was talking about. This film would make you face your mortality that many take for granted. I highly recommend this film to anyone looking for something unique and exciting. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

     Now on to the making of the film and a few facts. The soundtrack is quite exceptional as well because it conveys a feeling of death and doom. The unique sound of the theme song was achieved through a combination of synthesizer and an organ. The writers of the song were Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. Fred Myrow was also responsible for the soundtracks of such films as Soylent Green and Scarecrow as well as many others. The second composer, however was only known for Phantasm. This movie was also written and produced by the director. The crew, was made up of a series of amateurs and aspiring professionals. I have always wanted to be involved in a film production myself. Films like this give me hope because just about everyone who made it were inexperienced. Yet they made a cult classic with little money (at least from a filmmaking perspective). Don Coscarelli was only 23 when he made this. The budget was $300,000 and they yielded 12 million in the box office. Goes to show that life is full of surprises, some good, some terrible.

And now, here are some facts about Phantasm:

  1. As with many classics within the horror genre, the MPAA tried to give it an X rating. This would mean that little to no people would ever see it. The noted film critic by the name of Charles Champlin then spoke to the MPAA board of directors on the filmmaker's behalf. His word carried so much weight that he was able to change their mind, thus the film was released into theaters.

  2. The funding for the film was raised by the director alone. Don Coscarelli tried to spend as little money as possible; in order to achieve this, he cut corners when he could. Don would rent the equipment on a Friday afternoon which resulted in him being able to keep it for the weekend, but only pay for one day. The actors had to work double shifts that were 20-hours a day sometimes. He also had to do just about everything with his mother (who herself was a horror novelist) who ended up doing the makeup. Fortunately, this was not a very effects heavy project.

  3. The sentinel spheres originated from a dream the director had. He was being pursued by these three silver spheres in marbled corridors. That's the best thing about dreams in my opinion, they've brought us some of the greatest movies of all time. The spheres flying was achieved by filming a pitcher throwing them from behind the camera and it was reversed in post to give the impression that it was flying towards you. The whipping around the corner effect was achieved by guiding the sphere with a fishing line. It absolutely pains me to think that practical effects are a dying art. Even part five is guilty of using CGI and it looks terrible. 

  4. Angus Scrimm was the one who REALLY gave the Tall Man his unique feel. When he read in detail about what his character was all about, he fell in love with the character immediately. Everything from the way he spoke to his mannerisms were all him. All he needed was a push from the director and the rest is history. Just from watching it, you could really see that the actors had a great time with this movie.
     
  5. The Tall Man character and the film as a whole inspired many horror writers in general. The other worldly, dream like qualities inspired Nightmare on Elm Street and some allege that the Slenderman character was inspired by him. You can definitely see the similarities when you look at him. I believe it goes to show that nothing is entirely original, everything we see is derived from something.

  6. J.J. Abrams is responsible for the 4k remaster of Phantasm. He was a long time fan of the franchise. At one point, he asked if there was a high quality print of the film. Coscarelli sadly replied with an unfortunate no. However J.J. was able to get his team of technicians to do a 4K print of it and the high quality release was born. On a side note, and not to be creepy or anything, but the blood looks very real. 

    Now I'll talk a little bit about the sequels. For one thing, this first movie was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. I personally consider it the Star Wars of horror movies, it's THAT good. Although critics unfortunately panned it as they do many good films. For some reason, critics of the time were very biased against horror movies. 

       Despite that however, the director won an award (which was the Special Jury Award in '79) and a year later, in 1980, the film was nominated for the Saturn Award for best horror film. Plus Angus Scrimm became a well-known horror icon. Right up there with the likes of Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein). Unfortunately, audiences would not see a sequel until 1988. This was due to the fact that the director felt the ending to the first was conclusive which I kinda agree with, personally. Then, lo and behold, he came up with an idea for a sequel.

   Unfortunately, Universal Studios caught wind of it and they wanted a horror franchise very badly. They basically took complete control of the project. This resulted in the film being more action oriented, a lack of dream sequences, and the Mike character being re-casted. Universal had apparently wanted a working actor to play Mike. 

    These decisions were quite poor because the second one was a commercial failure. In my opinion, the second one wasn't that bad. However it didn't by a long shot have the same feel as the original. Anyway, on to the next movie.

    The third film saw a triumphant return of Mike's original actor. Plus, more importantly, full control was given back to the original director. This sequel was originally intended to feature a definitive end to the series. You see, the director was out of ideas at this point. In fact, he joked that if he made a fourth movie, it'd be entirely for profit. This sequel is actually much better than part two and the plot is self explanatory. 

    Part four was mostly filmed guerilla style while breaking a few filming laws. This was made with a little help from the family of the director and Reggie's girlfriend. The plot involved Mike traveling through time and between dimensions. Mike did this in order to learn more about his arch nemesis. The final result is unfortunately hard to watch, but relatively decent.

    The fourth was also originally intended to be the final sequel. This ultimately was not the case for that movie. It was however apocalyptic in nature. While I very much enjoy the villain, he is too overpowered in my opinion. The fourth was followed by a limited comic book series.

    We wouldn't see another sequel until 2016. This movie's script seemed to use aspects of the original proposed script of part four. The film wasn't directed by the director of the others because quote, "I wanted someone else to play with my train set". It was David Hartman who was at the helm this time. An absolutely poor move in my opinion.

   A bit more on this film, I didn't like it very much. This installment has the trademark style of David Hartman. He is responsible for the artistic style of Lords of Salem and had a bit of creative control. This man's films are usually colossal messes. Especially this one, I honestly don't know how to feel about it; it really functions like a grindhouse film. 

    The film also had that quality that most reboots of the 2010s have. That quality is, being a huge production with little substance. This was quite the weak final installment, but not entirely devoid of enjoyment. On an unfortunate side note, however, main star Angus Scrimm died soon after filming.

   The franchise had its ups and downs, but as a fan I enjoyed every minute of it. In its heyday, it was fantastic. But like many excellent franchises the good times rarely keep rollin. That's my article, love y'all to death and I'm outie XO.

Did you like the article? Send me whatever you can for reviews on new movies and interviews with people who have worked on movies or other media with YOUR questions :). 

I also do video games. I currently have all PlayStations and an Xbox 360.

Got a review request? Email me at [email protected]

Clorissa Endicott
Clorissa Endicott

I'm just an avid gamer/horror fan with tons of knowledge of many things within the entertainment business and gaming business. I have also met with a variety of directors, actors, and writers in conventions.


Feel free to contact me :)

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