Phantasm (1979)

Forty years ago, a 22-year-old fledgling filmmaker by the name of Don Coscarelli noticed that his films, while well received, were not making a lot of money.  He also noticed that, well, horror movies seemed to do pretty well. Maybe he should do one of those. He spent the next two or three years shooting with a lot of the actors, writing, editing, of course pointing the actual camera, and in June of ’79, came out with one of the most unique and iconic horror films of all time: Phantasm.

Both the "screwball" and the "comedy", I guess.
Giving a new meaning to “screwball comedy”.

Two brothers—not these two brothers but more like these two—living together after their parents died (two years earlier) lose another friend to…I forget what the official story is (suicide?), but it’s not the real one. Anyway big brother Jody (Bill Hornbury) goes off to the funeral with buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister) but leaves Mike (Michael Baldwin) at home because he had nightmares for weeks after his parents’ funeral. (As one would.)

But Mike basically follows Jody around everywhere because he’s afraid Jody’s going to leave, and leave him behind, which is exactly correct. Jody says at much while Mike (who has the mechanical aptitude, apparently) is under the car, fixing it. Anyway, Jody visits an old gypsy woman to find out the truth, and that’s not really much of a help, though it does end up helping him later on, when things get really weird.

I never could figure out what they were doing in this movie.
Maybe not gypsies. Not a lot of blonde gypsies.

But, back to the funeral: Mike sees it from a distance, and then sees a menacing figure (Angus Scrimm), forever known as The Tall Man, single-handedly lift a casket into a hearse. (This is a great shot, by the way: The casket, which must certainly be made of balsa or foam or something, really looks heavy!) He becomes obsessed with The Tall Man, and mysterious goings on at the cemetery, to the extent that he breaks in to the mortuary. At this point, things start to get spooky and beyond. There in the long, white marble corridors, he is menaced by The Tall Men, some short “men”, and an apparatus that flies through the air at very high speeds with nothing good on its mind.

Coscarelli shot over three hours for the movie, and it has a sort of epic feel even with the majority of that not making it into the final cut. There’s a dreamlike quality to things—well, ultimately, this is a funhouse horror flick, that entertains with shocking, wild or just plain cool imagery, to the extent that things don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Just from watching it, you can’t, for example, tell whether or not the movie actually happens. Like, “was it all a dream?”—but then, not really, because the movie very quickly assures you that, “no, it wasn’t all a dream, but it’s not necessarily reality, either.” Most likely, the Tall Man is some sort of illusionist—a theme that will recur in the four sequels.

Yes, he did. And it's great!
Like, did I dream it, or did the director ACTUALLY put a jam session in the middle of his horror flick?

We saw the recently remastered version, which was apparently somethinged (financed? overseen? curated?) by J.J. Abrams, whose 10 Cloverfield Lane and Cloverfield show the influence of Phantasm, as the horror in those films takes a turn you don’t necessarily see coming, and it can be very refreshing. The remastering is eminently respectful, with a few effects being polished (wires being removed) and things like the sound being enhanced (I think; it was better than I remembered it).

A few things I had not seen in previous viewings were much clearer here: A man suffering the film’s first (and only) really grisly death is shown lying on his back from the knees down as Mike cowers in terror on the floor next to him. And he (the recently deceased) pees. This scene apparently got the film an “X” until Charles Champlain (last seen in the review of Animal House) made a call to get it back to an “R”, at least per IMDB. There’s another scene where the pal killed in the first scene turns up driving a car and I’d never been able to parse that effect before. Now I could actually make it out.

I think it was Kathy Lester's own dress.
“The Lady In Lavender”: Just as I remember her.

But otherwise I would’ve said this is the same movie I knew growing up. And what’s striking about it is how tight it is. The lighting is terrific: Subjects are lit up to the extent that everything around them is utterly black. This, I suspect, has a lot to do with the budget, but rather than have an entire scene before the audience, most of which is unremarkable, you just have the main subjects lit in a dark, dark world—which is damned effective. The mortuary, which is (or was until a couple of years ago) a house in my neighborhood, is so pronounced it looks almost fake—but in a spooky, otherworldly way. The darkness at one point gives way to an utterly white room, which is another effective dramatic shift. (The Flower has been all about the “white room” thing lately, trying to find out where it originated, but it was big in the ’70s.)

The editing is tight. It’s almost too tight, to where, on a couple of occasions, the ADR feels like it’s been precisely timed to get the line in before the next cut showed the characters’ lips not moving. That said, low-budget filmmaking is all about the tough decisions, and this is one of many examples of Coscarelli making good ones.

It’s a hugely energetic film. Another excellent aspect of it—one missing from a lot of the green screen action films of today—is a command of the space. The mausoleum itself was, I believe, a sound stage (a warehouse, again in my neighborhood), and probably not very expansive, but you really get a sense of people moving through this labyrinth of passages. The same kind of command of space shows up when characters are on The Road, which is the thing they’re on whenever they need to get somewhere, but which is itself sort of otherworldly, never to have a cop or other car on it. (Again, a great choice which works with a low budget.)

BOOOOOY!
Look at that lighting. Well-lit, yet spooky.

We happened to see this on a Friday night in Beverly Hills with Don and Reggie in attendance to answer questions, as well as the director of the latest (and presumably last) in the series Phantasm: Ravager, and the two most interesting questions asked had to do with the disappearance of Michael Baldwin from Phantasm II and the possibility of the reboot.

In order to get $3 million for the 1988 sequel, Coscarelli said, the studio would let him keep either Reggie or Michael. He chose to keep Reggie, which was pretty much the only thing you could do—I mean, kid actors grow up and are replaced all the time (see Riddick, where Rhiana Griffith was replaced by Alexa Davalos) because, y’know, kids change. But he described this as having sold his soul to the devil: It was clear, even now, he feels bad about that.

Preposterous!
A man with a conscience? In Hollywood?

This segued pretty cleanly into the reboot talk, as fanatic movie guy (no, not me) pointed out all the reboots being done—all of them horrible! (which isn’t entirely true)—and would Phantasm suffer a similar fate? Coscarelli ended his answer with something like “Almost certainly.” But apparently he’d been in talks a few years back for a reboot, and he’d come up with some stuff that would make it what they call a “soft reboot” with characters from the original returning. But the studios don’t want or get that, I guess, unless it’s Star Wars.

And he said, convincingly, that he couldn’t imagine having to tell Angus (who passed in January this year) that they were going to make another Phantasm movie without him as the Tall Man. He said it would’ve broken his heart. And this, probably, is a big part of the reason Coscarelli  only has a smallish number of credits to his name outside of this franchise. He actually would care about breaking his friend’s heart. In every aspect of the Q&A session, he’d defer to or otherwise engage Reggie on any questions he could answer, and while you hear about film crews bonding over some production, you really got the sense that it was true here.

That’s cool. And, it’s a cool movie. The Boy and The Flower, who had no particular reason to feel anything about this old flick, both loved it.

Like children "pretending" to be demonic dwarves.
It’s the little things in life.

Interesting side note #1: The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avary (Beowulf, Silent Hill) had penned an impossible-to-get-made sequel which Coscarelli said Avary let him pilfer from, from time-to-time.

Interesting side note #2: This movie was a big enough hit with the kids that we not only stayed for the Q&A, which we never do, but we stayed to watch the latest in the series Phantasm: Ravager.

One thought on “Phantasm (1979)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *