If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!
Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm was weird when it opened in 1979 and still weird today. It’s become much of a cult phenomenon, sparking multiple sequels and lots more questions. So keep your wits about you and remember to duck if you see a silver sphere flying at you!
The trailer for Phantasm is very evocative, with some creepy imagery. A young boy being pursued by an evil looking man. Weird flying silver orbs. Driverless hearses. And jawas? Like many other trailers of this era, the announcer repeats the name of the film over and over. If you haven’t seen this before, go watch before reading. The scares come quick and fast in this one!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
In a darkened cemetery, Tommy (Bill Cone) and the Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester) are making love, when she suddenly pulls out a large dagger and kills him. She then transforms into a menacing tall, older man. Later a number of friends, including Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Banister) have gathered at Morningside Funeral Parlor for the burial of their friend Tommy. Jody’s younger brother Mike (Michael Baldwin) watches the proceedings from afar and sees a Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) lift the heavy coffin by himself.
The next day Mike visits a local fortune teller, and her teenage granddaughter. Mike admits that he’s scared of what he’s seen up at Morningside, but the granddaughter–speaking for the fortune teller–tells him not to be afraid and presents him with a test. A box that he puts his hand in and feels pain. She tells him that fear is the real enemy. Later the granddaughter investigates Morningside, finding a strange room. Her screams echo through the marbled corridors.
Jody visits a local bar that evening and picks up the Lady in Lavender. They make their way to a cemetery and start making out. Mike follows them, as he’s had visions that Jody will be leaving him so he follows him constantly. The lovers are interrupted when Mike sees a small, brown robed dwarf in the cemetery. Jody tells Mike to go home as he’s hallucinating. Later while working on his car, Mike sees something similar when the car falls, narrowly missing him.
Mike breaks into Morningside and witnesses a flying silver sphere attach itself to a caretaker’s face and drill into the unfortunate man’s head. The Tall Man chases Mike out and loses a number of fingers when Mike slams a door on them. They continue to move and are coated in a ochre goo, so Mike takes one with him.
After showing the finger to Jody, he finally believes Mike, but it morphs into a strange bug and the siblings must grind it up in the garbage disposal. Jody takes a gun to Morningside to get to the bottom of this, but is attacked by the brown robed dwarves, and chased by a hearse run by a dwarf which looks like Tommy! Mike is staying with a friend that runs an antique store, when he finds an old photo of the Tall Man–which moves! Mike asks the friend to take him home but they are attacked by dwarves on the road when they stop to look over Reggie’s crashed ice cream truck.
Jody locks Mike in his room and goes back to Morningside to investigate, but Mike escapes and comes to help. They discover Reggie is there as well, apparently unharmed. They enter the mysterious room at the end of the corridor and discover a portal to another planet. They realize the Tall Man is stealing corpses, shrinking them down to dwarf size for use as slaves on his home planet which is hotter and with a heavier gravity. The lights go out and the three become separated.
Reggie is stabbed by the Lady in Lavender, while Jody heads to the nearby mine to disguise the shaft. Mike races through the woods, avoiding a myriad of dangers getting the Tall Man to fall in the mine shaft. Jody then causes rocks to fall down and trap him. The film then cuts to Reggie and Mike sitting in front of a roaring fire. Reg is comforting Mike about his bad dream being chased by a Tall Man. He reminds Mike that Jody was killed in a car accident, but Mike thinks it’s a trap by the Tall Man. In his room, Mike sees the Tall Man reflected in his mirror, right before hands come through the mirror and pull him into a dark abyss.
“Don’t fear, Michael.” – Fortune teller’s Granddaughter
Phantasm wasn’t Don Coscarelli’s first film but it was the one that gained him the most attention. His previous films were two slice-of-life drama’s from the 70s: Jim The World’s Greatest and Kenny & Company. Both starred a number of actors that would also work with him on Phantasm. He decided to make a horror film after the Halloween sequence in Kenny & Company garnered praise, and also because it was a relatively inexpensive genre to work with. Coscorelli took his inspiration from many types of films, but specifically he recalls a dream about a silver orb that haunted him, so he used that as a central (and very memorable) element.
Phantasm is unique in its depiction of horror as well as its thematic elements. The film is a mixture of styles looking like a low-budget 70s horror film part of the time and surrealistic European film the rest. That’s partially because it is from both worlds. Filmmakers often talk about how sometimes the best elements come to them based on the constraints of the job. That may be budget constraints, or logistics not allowing for something to happen as planned. The result is usually a more creative solution because of it. This film has elements like that. The dreamlike quality of the film, with the frequent non-continuity edits or jump cuts, where a character may still be talking from a previous scene, but suddenly after the edit we’re in a new location and the dialogue continues. It’s sometimes jarring, but adds an element of surrealism to the produce. It makes the settings ambiguous as well as the time and space of the film, leading to constant levels of tension, anxiety, and fear. Phantasm’s thematic elements are as equally off kilter from standard horror and slasher films. While other scary films might create subtext in the horror around sexuality or revenge, Phantasm covers death and loss. Pretty heady themes for a film about people dying.
Coscarelli was influenced by films like 1977s Suspiria (specifically the soundtrack, of which Phantasm’s is an electronic inspired homage), Un Chien Andalou (1929), Repulsion (1965), Diabolique (1955, which also inspired elements of Hitchcock’s Psycho), as well as the sci-fi film Invaders From Mars (1953). Stylistically this film stands alone, looking like nothing else from the time, but also rooted firmly in the late 70s. Director Coscarelli makes good use of jump scares, tension, and some old fashioned gore to create his horror. But he also utilizes frequent horror elements like mirrors, portals, an archetypal boogeyman in the Tall Man, plus frequent editing tricks to make elements seem like they’re happening out of the corner of your eye. The film also makes use of a relatively new trick in the filmmakers horror arsenal, inspiring many others as well: the final jump scare. As with Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976), the director makes one last go at the audience by setting a calm scene after the final battle, only to disrupt it with one final scare. This element would pop up much more frequently in the 80s with killers coming back to life, or people waking up from dreams (or maybe still being in one as A Nightmare on Elm Street did).
Overall Phantasm still packs a punch in the scares per minute department, especially if you’ve never seen the film before. The constant warping of reality, plus the odd unexplained moments, the sci-fi infusion of the third act all serve to make the film something that bears repeated viewings. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, try re-watching with the lights down low.
- This franchise would return with four sequels all featuring Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm, while Phantasm II (1988) would recast James LeGros as Mike. Michael Baldwin would return for the final three sequels, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), Phantasm IV: OblIVion (1998) & Phantasm: RaVager (2016).
- He may not be Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger, but the Tall Man is a horror icon in his own right. His limited dialogue, creepy demeanor, and ill-fitting suit all make him one of the scariest antagonists from a horror franchise.
- How come there are Jawas running around the graveyard? It’s only coincidence that the dwarves created by the Tall Man wear brown robes and resemble the scavenger species from Star Wars. While the sci-fi epic was released prior to Phantasm, they were both in production around the same time.
- And speaking of Star Wars, director JJ Abrams is such a fan of this film, that when it came time for him to direct The Force Awakens, he created a shiny silver stormtrooper named Captain Phasma, homaging the name of this film and the shiny silver sphere within.
- And one other final homage to sci-fi royalty comes during the visit to the fortune teller. A magical box appears for Mike to put his hand in. The granddaughter tells him not to fear, just like the test given to Paul Atreides in the novel “Dune,” which would later be turned into a film.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.