Thursday, October 13, 2011

Classics Revisited: Phantasm

(1979) Written and Directed by Don Coscarelli; Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

What’s It About?

The term “classic” often gets thrown around arbitrarily, applied to anything that’s aged sufficiently and has gained acclaim from the professional critical community. “Cult classics,” on the other hand, gain their notoriety through the back door, by word of mouth from a vocal minority of dedicated fans. While there’s typically a consensus of opinion about what constitutes a traditional classic, cult classics earn their designation in a more haphazard manner, and by definition have comparatively limited appeal. Phantasm clearly falls into the latter category, although it will always be a true classic in my book. This little low-budget horror flick doesn’t have Oscar-caliber performances, elaborate special effects or the overall polish found in more expensive productions, but it more than makes up for these deficiencies in original and unpredictable ways. 

Astonishingly, this was the 23-year-old writer/director Don Coscarelli’s third feature film. Coscarelli was inspired to follow-up 1976’s Kenny & Company with a horror film, by observing how audiences reacted to a scene in that earlier film involving a guy in a monster mask. Phantasm was shot between 1977 and 1978, utilizing various California locations. The funeral home prominently featured in the film was the Dunsmuir-Hellman Estate in Oakland, while the mausoleum was actually a set built in a warehouse in Chatsworth (coincidentally, my old stomping grounds). Sunnyside Mortuary in Long Beach was used for the funeral home’s coffin showroom, lending some much-needed credibility to the film. Not unlike Kenny & Company, the production of Phantasm was a family affair, with Coscarelli’s father Dac producing and his mother Kate serving (under pseudonyms) as makeup artist, costume and production designer. As in the previous film, Phantasm’s cast and crew included many friends and family members (including Dac and Kate in cameos), mostly whom were not professional actors.

Coscarelli commented that the idea behind Phantasm came from his observations of the “American way of death,” specifically how our society shelters us from the dead. What happens to the bodies after death is a mystery that most of us don’t care to explore. We avoid the morbid, yet we’re strangely attracted to it.  It’s this push-pull dynamic that Phantasm manipulates so well, playing with the audience’s expectations and twisting them around.

The embodiment of this fear and fascination with death is encapsulated in Angus Scrimm’s (real name: Lawrence Rory Guy) darkly enigmatic character, known only as The Tall Man. He has very few lines in the film, but each one is memorable. Only Scrimm could make the word “boy” sound menacing.  We’re never sure what he’s capable of, as he appears like a glowering messenger from hell.  Coscarelli ensured that The Tall Man would appear especially intimidating, shooting Scrimm’s scenes from a low angle. Already well over six feet, Scrimm was made even taller, thanks to 3-inch lifts in his shoes.

The interplay between the leads looks natural and unforced. We buy into A. Michael Baldwin as 13-year-old Mike and Bill Thornbury as his 20-something older brother Jody. Still grappling with the death of their parents, Mike is looking to Jody as a pseudo-parental figure, while Jody is ready to move on. There’s a subplot about Mike conquering his fears about being left behind, which contrasts scenes of Jody in his Plymouth Barracuda – a symbol of freedom from his small-town existence. Coscarelli regular Reggie Bannister rounds out the cast as Jody’s affable friend Reggie (Yeah, Coscarelli didn’t spend a lot of time thinking up original names for his leads). Reggie’s a great guy to have around, whether you’re playing guitar with your best friend or just looking for a place to store the body of a dead dwarf.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

30+ years later, Phantasm still appears as original as ever. There’s nothing else quite like it, which is hard to imagine in this age of remakes, re-imaginings and recycling of ideas. Halloween, The Exorcist and Friday The 13th spawned countless imitations, no one’s been bold enough or crazy enough to attempt a Phantasm rip-off. Coscarelli’s bizarre gumbo of misfit elements doesn’t follow the rules. When the climax takes a left turn into unexpected territory, we can tell that he was taking a chance, and we’re better off for it. This isn’t filmmaking by committee, but the result of a singular vision.

Either by default or design, Phantasm wasn't afraid to be rough around the edges. Some of the sequences don’t make a lot of sense, seeming disjointed and dreamlike at times. It feels as if Coscarelli wanted to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, but it’s this fearlessness that works. Some of the dialogue is admittedly corny, but it just fits into the whole gestalt of the movie. Over the years, it’s been impossible not to repeat several of the more memorable lines.

Phantasm simply clicks because it preys on our primal fears about death and the unknown, and isn’t afraid to toy with our expectations. It’s not easily categorized – the short answer would certainly be horror, but there’s a confluence of other genre elements shoehorned in. The subtextual components include loss of a parent, abandonment, finding meaning in death and what lies beyond; fairly heady stuff for a low-budget horror movie.  

Over the years Phantasm spawned three sequels, written and helmed by Coscarelli, each providing some interesting moments, but with arguably diminishing returns, creatively speaking. The saga’s open-ended structure easily leaves room for another sequel, but as time goes on, another chapter seems more and more unlikely. It would be interesting to see where things would go, with many key questions left unanswered. The first movie, however, remains the best. Phantasm achieved no small feat, as one of the true standouts in a decade that was distinguished by so many great horror films.


  1. Fantastic review! One of my all-time favourite horror films too. And I never knew Angus Scrimm's real name so I've learnt something!

  2. Thanks for reading! Some reviews are definitely more painless to write than others - I had a lot of fun writing about Phantasm.