Sunday, October 20, 2013

31 Days of Halloween 2013: Phantasm (October 23rd at the People's Temple)

[PHANTASM screens Wednesday October 23rd at 9:00 pm at the People's Temple.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

Appropriately for a film concerned chiefly with the fear of death, PHANTASM begins with a murder in a cemetery. The victim was a friend of Jody (Bill Thornbury), an aspiring musician who is doing his best to take care of his adolescent brother Mike (Michael Baldwin) in the wake their parents' death. Jody tries to keep Mike away from the funeral, worried that he won't be able to handle it, but the young boy shows up anyway, watching the service from afar. That's how he sees the funeral director, known only as “The Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm), pick up the coffin of Jody's deceased friend like it was nothing and, rather than bury it, tosses it in the back of his hearse.

In classic “boy detective” tradition, Mike investigates the strange goings-on at the cemetery and funeral home while simultaneously fretting over the possibility that Jody is planning to send him off to live with some relatives so he can pursue his dreams of life on the road. The investigation draws the two brothers closer, also drawing in family friend and local ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister), even as it puts their lives in danger. And as that danger escalates, so does the weirdness, with such touches as a flying silver ball with spikes that implants itself in people's heads, severed fingers that grow into giant flies, and evil Jawas from another dimension.

Although rated R, the truth is that the perfect audience for PHANTASM is adolescent boys like its protagonist. And back in 1979 when it was released, that rating wouldn't have posed too much of an obstacle to the film reaching that audience since no one really checked IDs at the theater. Sure, there are murders and gore, but there's none of the sadism you'll find on display in a lot of horror films. This is more like a Hardy Boys novel with lots of blood and yellow slime.

Beneath that surface of PHANTASM, however, is a movie about a young boy's fear of death. Not so much his own, although that's part of it, but the death of those close to him, and the fear of abandonment that comes with that. Once you understand that, and realize that the occasional seeming lapses in logic in the film would be perfectly at home in a dream, or more accurately, a nightmare, PHANTASM makes perfect sense.

That it all works as well as it does is a testament to the passion of everyone involved. Director (and writer/producer/editor/cinematographer, too) Don Coscarelli was able to make a very different kind of film because he was working outside the studio system. The cast were mostly amateur or semi-pro actors, but nonetheless the three leads come across as both competent and likeable, while Scrimm is suitably menacing as the Tall Man. Fortunately back in 1979, a film like that could still get theatrical distribution if it was even marginally well made and had enough exploitable elements. PHANTASM checks off both of those boxes, and it had a fantastic ad campaign as well, helping this $300,000 production go on to make back millions at the box office (in seventies dollars).

The success did not go unnoticed, and like Sam Raimi (EVIL DEAD) and Tobe Hooper (TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) , Coscarelli got a chance to make a big budget sequel in the late eighties. If nothing else, it proved that more money does not necessarily make for a better film. Two more low budget sequels followed, proving that less money doesn't necessarily make for a better movie, either. Sometimes, you just get lucky, and trying to recapture that magic is impossible. Coscarelli fared much better on more original projects, including the cable TV favorite BEASTMASTER, and BUBBA HO TEP, in which EVIL DEAD star Bruce Campbell plays a nursing home-bound Elvis Presley forced to do battle with an undead mummy. Those films are arguably better known these days than PHANTASM, and they're certainly worthy cult classics in their own right. For me, though, PHANTASM will always be Coscarelli's masterpiece. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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