[PHANTASM in a newly remastered edition screens Saturday September 24th at 8:00 pm at the Capitol Theatre.]
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
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.