Movie Review: “Phantasm”

   Phantasm is a film I felt like I would never watch. For all intents and purposes, it lands exactly in my ballpark. I love goofy, absurd horror films (they are a majority of what I review on, after all). I am even more interested when I know the film is a part of a franchise, which Phantasm just so happens to be (for better or for worse, the jury is still out). And yet, in spite of having known about the series for as long as I can remember, it has always precluded the archives of the ‘Bib. Well, no more!

   Directed, written, photographed, and edited by Don Coscarelli, Phantasm is a 1979 science fantasy horror film. The film stars the late-Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man, a supernatural and malevolent undertaker who gathers up the deceased from Earth to be turned into dwarf zombies meant to be used as slaves on his home-planet. If you’re like me, that description was enough to make me do a Michael Myers head tilt.

   I was aware of Phantasm, but I didn’t actually know much about it heading in. All I knew was to keep my expectations in check (as I always try to do for some of the lesser known cult horror), and prepare for an unorthodox, peculiar film.

   Attempting to thwart the Tall Man, we have a young boy named Mike, played by Michael Baldwin, who attempts to convince everyone that the threat is real.

   Straightaway, I am taken in by how aesthetically pleasing Phantasm is to look at. This is because I am watching Phantasm: Remastered, a neat-and-tidy restoration of the film done by Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams’ production company. Good on them for bringing the film up to code as it were.

   Something else I am relieved to see is how narratively coherent the film actually is. I will be honest, although I always knew I needed to watch the Phantasm series as a horror fan, a lot of what made me apprehensive was how fearful I was of its quality. Frankly, when a film has so much riding on one man (the director, writer, photographer, and editor), I usually expect a surrealist, experimental, and perhaps, incohesive final product.

   Although Phantasm is certainly surreal and weird, it is also conventional and easy to follow along with. A young boy sees something weird, he goes looking for answers about that something weird, and weirdly enough, he finds them. It is a classic story formula and I was happy to see that. This isn’t to say the film won’t leave you scratching your head in its closing minutes, however, because it absolutely will.

   The acting admittedly leaves a little to be desired. It isn’t putrid or godawful, but it is clear we are dealing with a cast still honing their craft. I would call it par for the course. The actors range from over-acting to a more stilted, underplayed approach, creating a certain thematic dissonance. Both approaches can be a little off-putting throughout the film, but neither ultimately damages the film beyond repair. Our lead protagonist is satiable, especially for a young-actor, and while the Tall Man is over-the-top and cartoony, I believe it is suitably so.

   The violence is mostly scarce, and when it does happen, it’s bloody and absurd. The film didn’t strike me as so much scary as it was shrouded in mystique (although I am desensitized enough I haven’t the faintest idea what affects the average person these days).

   The antagonist and the film’s conflict are unique and a welcome change of pace from a lot of the horror we often get. I equate it as similar to Hellraiser, where we don’t have a slasher villain, but a character close enough to a slasher villain that it scratches a similar itch.

   I wasn’t sold on the end of the film. I can see what it means to say on grief and mourning, and I am all for a film that is up for interpretation, but the end opens up a whole can of worms for a payoff that is a little more nonsensical than it is profound. There are too many cogs in motion for the payoff to land, and I believe the film would’ve ultimately benefited from a conventional, normal end, I’d say.

   The film has a “dream-like” quality to it, and it was something I appreciated more in-retrospect than I did as I watched the film. It has a bit of a ‘fractured dream logic’ throughout, with characters drawing conclusions and making sense out of things they shouldn’t. According to my research, this was halfway intentional and halfway an outcome of a lot of post-production decisions and backstory ending up on the cutting room floor.

   My favorite aspect of this film is, ironically, one of the only aspects the director didn’t create himself. The score is mesmeric and was a real highlight for me. It has a familiar, classical late-seventies / early-eighties horror vibe to it, akin to a lot of what was released in the time-period. It has a fairly thematic and distinct core sound, but, pleasantly, they modify it and diversify it throughout, adding new instruments and tone, rather than pasting the same loop over each scene ad nauseum. 

   In summation, I liked Phantasm a lot more than I thought I would. It isn’t without its warts, mind you. The acting is a mixed-bag and I really could have done without its ending (of which, the film had multiple made), but I loved the score and I enjoyed the oddball premise, which I think was executed well. Considering its limited resources, it’s a real feather in the cap of everyone involved, especially Coscarelli. It’s an old-school horror gem and I recommend it to anybody who hasn’t seen it – don’t wait as long as I did!

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0