Drive-In Dust Offs: PHANTASM

2015/08/22 17:46:17 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


Phantasm: a figment of the imagination; an illusion or apparition.

Where is the line drawn between reality and fantasy? How do we know that what we call life is nothing but a dream (row your boat, fella), and the real world is filled with terrors beyond our imagination? Or maybe there’s a place where the two collide – a world of monsters small and tall, seductive and sinister, tearing at the very fabric of our existence. A place where peace is at a premium and death lurks around every corner. Welcome to Phantasm (1979).

Released by Avco Embassy in June of ’79, Phantasm was very successful, especially considering its small budget. As usual with horror, most critics derided the film as an incoherent mess. Oh but the audience knew, conspirators in the shadows, witnessing the birth of a horror icon, a cinematic universe spanning decades, and one of the finest directors the genre has ever produced. Phantasm stands alone as a completely unique, bizarre, heartfelt, and terrifying journey into the minds eye.

This is normally where I put in a story description, and this is my fourth try. Let’s see if I can get it this time: Young teenage boy witnesses weird occurrences at a mortuary. A sinister undertaker from another world steals bodies, truncating them to use as slaves in his own dimension. Boy gets help from older brother and their friend, an ice cream vendor. However, nothing can be taken for granted or is as it seems…

Are you still here? Good. As you can tell, this is not your typical plot description, because Phantasm isn’t about story – it’s about sensations. It’s about images that will burn in your brain, kaleidoscopic wallpaper plastered in your mind forever. Characters appear and then are gone, events happen and then are dismissed. However, when you surrender to its cracked logic – and I assure you it’s there – you’re left with a fever dream of a film, punch drunk and trembling in the knowledge that you’ve never seen THAT before.

Herein lies the wonder of Phantasm. It’s an unwillingness to adhere to the formal structure and tropes of the genre, a brashness that says we have our own mythology, thank you very much – and we’re building it from the unhallowed ground up. Behold a world where belief and truth are blurred, and confusion is an ally, if one is ready to receive.

Is this pretzel logic intentional? Well, only director (and writer/dp/editor) Don Coscarelli knows for sure. This was his third film after two dramas, Jim the World’s Greatest and Kenny and Co. (both 1976), and it couldn’t be more different. His original cut of the film was three hours, and as a result of copious editing, we have the ninety feverish minutes enshrined on the screen (some of the excised footage is used poignantly in the third sequel, Oblivion). With so much footage gone, of course it’s going to seem disjointed. However, this is part of its appeal – a dreamlike desperation permeates nearly every frame. With very limited funds, Coscarelli was able to achieve something truly rare in horror – his own vision. He demonstrates a unique ability for the surreal, from the deadly flying sentinels (silver spheres – there’s a whole column to itself) to nightmarish sequences that are heady fuel for the imagination.

The cast are energetic and likable. Bill Thornbury and Reggie Bannister play Jody, the older brother to our teenager, and Reggie, the ice cream man. They have real camaraderie together as band mates thrust into a journey further than their minds can comprehend. However, the film truly centers around two individuals: Mike, our young hero, played wonderfully by A. Michael Baldwin, and the evil undertaker AKA The Tall Man, played with a menacing flourish by the incomparable Angus Scrimm. Striking in his slim black suit, with platform shoes and a crocodile smile, Scrimm is Death personified. Whether giving Mike chase or lurking in the shadows, Scrimm brings to life the unstoppable force and omniscient presence of The Tall Man, all with a gleam in his eye that would make Karloff and Price smile. A monster for the ages, in a film that defies time.

Certain films are ingrained in us, as signposts of life, markers that stand firm no matter when we look back. I first saw Phantasm after I lost both of my grandfathers a month apart. Heavy stuff for a ten year old, but films have a way sometimes of protecting you when you need it, a safe haven from reality where you can get lost in another world. Phantasm resonates with me so deeply because I identify with Mike, his sense of loss (both of his parents dead and his brother in danger) , and his fight against evil. When you’re ten, it’s hard to grasp death as a part of life – it’s easier to understand it as a corpse shrinking, grave robbing force from another planet that can be conquered. Now, thirty five years later, I understand (well, better anyway) that death will eventually come for all of us. But while I’m here, I’ll throw in Phantasm – and I’ll stand side by side with Mike, Jody, and Reggie. They look like they could use all the help they can get.

Phantasm is OOP (!) , but can be found on EBay, Amazon, and other 3rd Party Sellers. Boy... The Tall Man will be pissed when he hears this.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: HOUSE OF WAX
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.