Phantasm (1979) Review

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Phantasm (1979) Review

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on September 18th, 2018 | Movie Review | Alien, Supernatural, Cult Classic, Mutant, Body Horror

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It’s about two brothers investigating the creepy goings-on at the Morningside cemetery.

Phantasm was directed by Don Coscarelli (who also directed Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies At The End) and stars Angus Scrimm (from I Sell The Dead), A. Michael Baldwin (from Flay) and Bill Thornbury (from Phantasm: Ravager).

If this one doesn't scare you, you're already dead!

Phantasm Review

“The Funeral Is About To Begin!”

The Present Author will start by showing you my Top Ten Horror Movies Of All Time, and note that Phantasm makes that list. To make that list, my standard is not merely “good,” but “perfect!” Phantasm is perfect. Fight me.

It’s little-known, but “Phantasm” is an actual word. It can mean “an illusion” or “a ghost.” That makes this the perfect name for this movie, an obsessive death-dream told from a child’s point of view, himself and us the audience never sure what is real or illusion. That’s the one thing that puts this movie over the top; it’s not just horror, but surreal horror in a world with seemingly no rules, no authority, and no connection to anything we’d call a normal slice of civilization.

“Fear is the killer...”

So little Mike (A. Michael Baldwin, no relation to the other Baldwins) and his big brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) have lost their parents and live in a void in a small town where life revolves around the town cemetery, to the point where it’s the only place to get laid or ride a bike. After Jody’s friend dies and he and Mike attend the funeral, Mike becomes concerned with the big, threatening guy (Angus Scrimm) running the cemetery, who seems to run the place in an odd way. He eventually convinces his brother Jody and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), who drives an ice cream truck, that there’s Something Weird going on here.

As they investigate further, they find scarier and more surreal things happening, like fingers that keep moving even after they’re lopped off and oozing mustard, savage little Jawas that attack from shadows, and a Swiss Army Ball that’s a flying guided missile of possessed will. After many scares, close calls, nightmares, struggles, and images of coffins, graves, morgues, urns, flowers, funerals, death, death, and more death, it turns out there really WAS Something Weird going on here.

Nothing is explained, and there’s no hour of front-loaded padding like some movies we could name. Everything just is because it is that way, and it all happens in your face with no foreplay. Writer / Director Don Coscarelli works strictly from the gut here, and recounts that certain parts, such as the Flying Ball of Doom, came directly from nightmares he had. It’s a cliche to say you dreamed up an idea; however ninety-nine out of one hundred people will try to translate a dream out of their heads to us and fail, whereas Coscarelli must have drilled a hole in his skull and shoved the camera right in there.

Which is why the movie is crammed with so many iconic scenes. A car chase involving a hearse and a shotgun. Jawas playing hide and seek among headstones. The freaky, otherworldly reveals at the end. The claustrophobic morgue. The Tall Man huffing a contact buzz off dry ice. The tinkling chimes score that’s just a few bars away from a Goblin soundtrack . Finger in a box. And of course, the world’s most lethal Christmas ornament ( literally).

“You play a good game, boy!”

One might think that the low budget and cheap effects work against this movie, and yet Phantasm gets away with it when a dozen peers wouldn’t. There is that undefinable “something” about this movie, the way it makes sense only from the point of view of an ‘80s kid having a nightmare, where even the clumsy acting, limited sets, and cheesy effects work for it. Just try telling me this would be the same movie if it came out in the 2000s and had top-grade CGI.

More to the point, who in the modern day would buy a couple orphaned kids living on their own with nobody to look out for them but the local ice cream man? Hell, with that stupid haircut I’d barely trust this guy to look after ice cream. When Mike is troubled by his home situation, who does he have to turn to, a school counselor, a pastor, a grandparent? No, he goes right to a creepy psychic Ozzy Osbourne in drag whose idea of helping is to phase in a hand-munching box. In a town apparently without cops, the only way to solve matters is to take them into your own hands with firearms and hope for the best. But in a town that seems to be 90% cemetery from the way it’s filmed, Phantasm need not concern itself with the rules, because it IS the rules.

It’s common we have to excuse a movie around here and justify it by saying “Turn off your brain, it’s more fun that way.” But Phantasm only turns off the logical part of the mind, because it’s useless here. Instead it engages the illogical, artsy, dream-state mind with a death-clutch. Your inner kid lurches forward pointing “Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly right! It’s just a Tall Man who runs a cemetery, and he’s scary because he’s the tallest guy in town!” Your buried, repressed astral self knows with its sense of poetic reasoning that death looks exactly like a flying silver ball that chases you down a marble hall and eats your face. There it is, before your eyes. Do you believe it now?

Phantasm isn’t even something you can call “made.” It seems more like it naturally evolved out of the mildewed sweat of pure nightmares leaking into your pillow, which then sprouted legs and walked away. It is never watched, only witnessed.

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