Phantasm (1979)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #361

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Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: June 1, 1979
Sub-Genre: Supernatural
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $300,000
Box Office: $12,000,000
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: Don Coscarelli
Producers: Don Coscarelli
Screenplay: Don Coscarelli
Special Effects: Paul Pepperman
Cinematography: Don Coscarelli
Score: Fred Myro, Malcolm Seagrave
Editing: Don Coscarelli
Studio: New Breed Productions
Distributor: AVCO Embassy Pictures
Stars: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Angus Scrimm, Terrie Kalbus, Kenneth V. Jones, Susan Harper, Lynn Eastman-Rossi, David Arntzen, Ralph Richmond, Bill Cone, Laura Mann, Mary Ellen Shaw, Myrtle Scotton

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Suggested Audio Candy

Fred Myro & Malcolm Seagrave “Phantasm”

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“You think when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!”

As a child growing up in the eighties, certain films left a particular mark on my young psyche. I was born in 1974 so Phantasm had already been doing the rounds for a full five years before my first introduction at ten years old but I’ll never forget the impact Don Coscarelli’s nightmare maker had on my impressionable mind. I would love to have reported that I understood what the hell was going on but I would have been lying through my milk teeth as this surreal little movie left me with dozens of questions and barely a single answer. Even now, it is open to interpretation each time you watch and that is the mark of a true designer original. I knew one thing straight off the bat, that being that no other character in horror history chilled my blood quite as effortlessly as The Tall Man.

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At 6″4, Angus Scrimm was already a skyscraper among mortal men, but that still didn’t seem sufficient to relay his towering frame so the actor was required to wear ill-fitting suits and platform heels in an attempt at making him appear that much more mountainous. It worked a treat and his character became something of an icon, culminating in three sequels over the course of the next twenty years, each crafted by Coscarelli. Currently, Phantasm: Ravager is gearing up for release and, while David Hartman now directs, the great director has still managed to reunite his original cast with a script co-written himself. You looking for staying power? Well Phantasm has that in abundance.

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“I had a compunction to try to do something in the horror genre and I started thinking about how our culture handles death; it’s different than in other societies. We have this central figure of a mortician. He dresses in dark clothing, he lurks behind doors, they do procedures on the bodies we don’t know about” Don Coscarelli

Alas, any film made for next to nothing over thirty-five years ago, is likely to appear a little long in the tooth by current standards so my recommendation when to those experiencing this for the first time would be to cast your minds back to your childhood. By ten I had already witnessed my grandfather’s passing and had no concept of why that had happened or where he had gotten to. Death was an alien concept to me and, while loss eventually becomes a sorry fact of life, back then it seemed inconceivable. Phantasm also appeared incomprehensible to me and its narrative was all over the place from opening to closing frame. However any dearth of logic was entirely intentional and Coscarelli found other ways to retain out investment.

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First off there is a dreamlike ambiance to his film which predates the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street by half a decade. The emergence of slasher at the turn of the decade didn’t interest the young director and he wanted his film to be a much more cerebral experience. What he achieved on a shoestring was nothing short of miraculous; his film was every bit the triumph of will that Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead was and did it all without the need for crude stop-motion effects. It may not have pushed the boundaries quite as far in terms of outlandish splatter but his world seemed just as uninviting thanks to an almost sterile look. You could feel dread hanging in the air and, if that wasn’t enough to chill the blood in your ventricles, then a certain polished sphere was on-hand to drill the point home further.

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The ball in question only appeared briefly but, when it saw fit to enter the fray, it swiftly became my second-worst nightmare (Scrimm’s lofty harbinger of doom being the first). As for tertiary threat, Angus also possessed the ability to transform into the Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester) to appeal to our loins before tearing our worlds apart. Then, of course, we had the malevolent dwarven slaves (played by children) which convinced me never again to trust a Jawa with my lunch money. The Tall Man was something of an agriculturist; a harvester of souls. He had all manner of oddballs and kooks looking to do any demonic bidding on his behalf but it was his looming threat which terrified most.

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Our main protagonist was Mike (Michael Baldwin) and, in time-honored tradition, he spent the duration of his spiraling nightmare attempting to convince his elders that something wasn’t kosher. This, in itself, lent an ethereal mood to proceedings as we too felt trapped within his dreamscape and humongous credit to sixteen-year old Baldwin for making us feel so at home in the third person, while also a fair way from security. Mike’s older brother and, since the pair become orphaned, guardian Jody (Bill Thornbury) and loyal family friend and comic-consolation Reggie (Reggie Bannister) proved incalculable to the boy but still we never felt as though we could rest on our laurels for a single moment. At some point, we would have to be alone, and The Tall Man knew all the cubby holes to our imaginations.

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If you are looking to encourage me from within my epidermis then I would suggest popping up in the dead of night with the single line “boooyyy” as your sole communication then watch me bid farewell to the flesh. It rang in my head like a bleak siren for weeks after initial viewing and has since gone on to scare the skin from generations of horror aficionados alike. This should not have been the case when you consider that events veered so frequently into the preposterous but somehow it all seemed in keeping within Coscarelli’s insular dreamscape and that is the mark of a true classic through Keeper’s peepers. To this day, precious few films have offered so little respite from terror.

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As Phantasm operated within ethereal confines, time has been remarkably kind. Sure, there were flaws but then, when has a dream made a blind dash of sense? It showcased Coscarelli’s ability to do two things in particular: deviously contort reality and ratchet sustainable tension until our psyches have been pulled taut in numerous different directions. It will always terrify me as I have long since learned to unlock my inner adolescence and it looks suspiciously like Mike oddly enough. I first viewed this glorious film while ascending the cusp of puberty. It is no small compliment then that, it is on sole account of Phantasm, that my childhood never actually left me.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: The moment where that sentinel secures into place in its victim’s temples, bores through their skull with forceful precision, then acts as generous siphon, remains just as lustrous and disconcertingly satisfying to this very day. However, for Keeper, this presented the easy way out and an eternity of pondering where dead bodies go once the procession has ended remains far more morose than any concentrated blood geysers could ever conceive and achieve.

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Read A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Appraisal

Read Bad Dreams Appraisal

Read Dreamscape Appraisal

Read The Evil Dead (1981) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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