Bleeding Lotus’ Appraisal of Phantasm
Genre: Supernatural Horror
Country of origin: USA
Budget: $ 300,000
Box office : $11,988,469
Number of views: Multiple
Director: Don Coscarelli
Screenplay: Don Coscarelli
Running time: 89 minutes
Michael Baldwin as Mike Pearson
Bill Thornbury as Jody Pearson
Reggie Bannister as Reggie
Kathy Lester as Lady in Lavender
Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man
Pat Roman as The Mega Dwarf (THE MEGA DWARF!
It’s odd writing a critique for a film like Phantasm. I find myself continual phrasing the questions, when reminiscing with friends “remember when this happened?”, “remember when that happened?”, indicative of the impact Phantasm had on me as a 10 year old boy. I have few negative memories an before starting to write, questioned whether this critique could be necessarily objective? Could I see past the flaws and delivery the truth? Lets get it straight now, when its comes to Phantasm, I cant be objective, I’m not even going to try to be. So here is a subjectively reverent look at one of the greatest, most unique horror pictures ever made.
With a film of this ilk, in a time when Michael Myers was busy tearing up Haddonfield, its direction early on would define its success. Too generic, seen it all before. Too esoteric, who the fuck’s going to watch. Phantasm lived and died on its basic premise, but thrived on its ethereal like lunacy. A moderate success (for a horror film) in its native US, Phantasm found it difficult to appeal to a wider audience overseas (to this day, it still does). A shame, as without Phantasm the gulf between slasher flicks would have been painfully small. To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield “It cant get no respect”.
The story summed up; three deaths before we hit the ground running (alas off-screen before the running time commences); a conspiracy about a murdering man-mountain mortician in an ill fitting suit and two orphaned brothers with a Francis Rossi lookalike ice cream man seeking the truth about life, death and flying fucking balls!
Visually exceptional with performances not so bad that they’re good, but so diabolical they’re genuinely terrifying (for all the right reasons), Phantasm made me realise, much like Metallica did with heavy metal, that not all classic horror films are British. As an avid Hammer and Amicus fan, many American horror films seemed schlocky, overacted, outdated or unnecessarily gruesome with little time for unnecessary details such as a story or creativity. At the time I first saw it, Phantasm was already a 10 year old film (I’m giving away my age), but it flipped me 180 and I figuratively (OK, maybe literally) shit myself and saw the light and the power of Benjamin Franklin. Sat with my slightly younger brother on our sofa, 01:00 am, lights off, the sight of writer / director / producer Don Coscarelli’s amazing tour de force (and in this form, no doubt a victim of the BBC’s merciless cuts; I have many times since seen the full cut) reignited a passion for film that was gently on the wane.
The tension of waiting for one of the flying killer metal Sentinel balls (in no way a euphemism for VD I’m sure) or the appearance of Angus Scrimm’s superhuman, person squashing Tall Man (with his chilling, catchphrase worthy “booooooooyyyyyy!” whenever he wanted to scare the fuck out of young Mike Pearson), Phantasm played to me like Jaws in suburbia, practically hearing John Williams’ theme from Speilberg’s masterpiece in anticipation for any of the throng of horrors that could explode onto the screen. Orphaned protagonists, crazy faced dwarfs and inter-dimensional travel move the film along at a beautiful pace without ever wandering into MacGuffin and includes the greatest use of a cemetery location and a bald man with a pony tail playing guitar in recent history (I think it may be Francis Rossi).
There is grue, but its all done in the best possible taste and when we find out the effect Sentinels have on the poor unfortunates who’ve run out of corners to manoeuvre, stomachs could feasibly turn. A big factor of the success of the film came down to its look; being self aware of its budgetary limitations actually make it look like a million dollars which, in 1979, was a fair bit for a relatively untested director making a genre piece . In hindsight, it feels like the work of the precursor to Sam Raimi who actually knew what he was doing.
Is it perfect? Well, actually, it very nearly is! On every level, Phantasm is a beautiful piece of film making and storytelling and as those who’ve caught Coscarelli’s post Phantasm oeuvre may note, he hasn’t done a lot else of merit since and that includes the sequels (I don’t include Bubba Ho tep, which is wonderful film) but in Phantasm Coscarelli delivered 89 minutes of shock, 89 minutes of horror and 89 minutes that I’ll never forget.
Bleeding Lotus’ Judgement 9/10
Grue Factor 3/5