Studio: Avco Embassy Pictures
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writer: Don Coscarelli
Producer: D.A. Coscarelli
Stars: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Angus Scrimm
Two brothers and their best friend uncover an otherworldly conspiracy involving a mysterious corpse stealer.
A delicate pinch of finesse is required in reviewing a movie four decades removed from release and nearly the same age as you. Reconciling objectivity with subjectivity becomes an even greater challenge when filters of fondness for certain seminal films color perceptions with blinding rose tints. Meanwhile, the same hard-to-articulate charms a devoted fan finds so fascinating may be unavoidably lost on an audience without the same sense of nostalgia to forgive all the flaws.
Such is the case with “Phantasm.” Having easily earned its rightful place among late 70s horror classics such as “Halloween” (review here) and “Dawn of the Dead,” “Phantasm” is still so steeped in the strange horror psychoscape of 1979 that anyone immune to the era’s influence, e.g. perhaps someone born in the 21st century, might be too busy justifiably sighing at the silliness to fully grasp what those of us who grew up with the film find so unsettlingly frightening.
Something strange is going on at the Morningside mortuary and cemetery. While his brother Jody and their buddy Reggie attend a funeral for a friend, teenager Mike spies the solemn ceremony from a distance and sees a black-suited undertaker, the mysterious Tall Man, lifting a casket with superhuman strength. Mike doesn’t fully realize it yet, but he has just stumbled onto his first clue involving the most bizarre interplanetary corpse-stealing conspiracy since “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
Indescribably weird almost from its outset, “Phantasm” continues growing even more wonderfully wild. Dwarves in brown cloaks. Flying silver spheres spearing skulls and siphoning blood. Severed fingers morphing into softball-sized flies. A seductive Lady in Lavender transforming into the sinister Tall Man. Magically materializing tests of courage in a mute fortuneteller’s parlor. Tuning fork portals to other dimensions. A hero who drives an ice cream truck.
Nearly none of it makes rational sense. None of it has to. This is the kind of experience for which the phrase “it has to be seen to be believed” exists.
No matter how nutty the movie gets, everyone boards the lunacy train without so much as a batted eyelash. Whether it is a severed finger oozing mustard blood and crawling on its own or a rushed explanation of realizing dead bodies are being refashioned as dwarf slaves after spending five seconds in a red-sky world, characters mutter an equivalent of, “makes sense to me” and move onward to the next nonsensical plot point. Dialogue is goofy. Excuses to separate characters are contrived. But because “Phantasm” is inherently a movie about suspending disbelief and believing the unbelievable, you willingly take the trip with Mike, Jody, and Reggie, if only to see what oddity they encounter next.
“Phantasm” is what an Italian giallo movie looks like when envisioned by an American filmmaker. Colors are vivid. The score is mesmerizing. Unforgettable visuals that belong unmistakably to “Phantasm” are imprinted in the mind’s eye.
Non-sequitur sequences seem as if scenes might be edited out of order, but it is all part of the intent to simulate a waking dreamscape built on incomprehensible logic. And if 21st-century sensibilities can forgive the 1970s filmmaking foibles of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, et al., then the same must be done for Coscarelli’s unique vision of a paralyzing nightmare.
This is the true achievement of “Phantasm.” The film succeeds because its surreal setting is always more entrancing, and always more interesting, than misaligned story beats or low-budget tech failing to tear at the seams. The style is perpetually hypnotizing and the overall effect on the imagination is what matters most, and what is remembered first.
There is nothing else in film fiction like “Phantasm.” Nothing even comes close, not even a single comparable imitator that followed after. “Halloween” stands out as the king of all slashers. “Dawn of the Dead” is at the top of the hill for zombie epics. “Phantasm” sets itself apart even further in horror filmdom by belonging to a franchise/subgenre class that is uniquely its own.
Review Score: 90