Phantasm (1979)

18 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Phantasm” has just about the best piece of marketing you could ask for in a horror movie—it has the great tagline, “If this one doesn’t scare you…you’re already dead!” Well, there are a couple scenes in “Phantasm” that did scare me, but I think the exaggeratory marketing that comes in all movies (not just horror movies) is starting to wear thin.

All the more, “Phantasm” is a well-made, fun horror movie directed by Don Coscarelli, who was in his early 20s when he made it. When he was a freshman in college, he started out with a film called “Jim, the World’s Greatest,” unseen by many people, including me. But then a year later, he made a sweet little gem called “Kenny & Company,” unnoticed by most people in America, but a success in Japan. Then, Don Coscarelli directed, wrote, and produced “Phantasm” in a way that shows us that he loves horror movies and just wants to thrill us by capturing the imagination of the kid in all of us. This is an R-rated horror movie yet with the mind of a young teenager that is obviously the film’s target audience.

“Phantasm” has just about everything a fun horror movie could ask for—two or more scary scenes, a tall boogeyman of some sorts, dwarfish lurkers, a cheesy flying creature, a mortuary, mystery, a haunting musical score, a plucky kid we can root for, some interesting characters who stand by the kid, and more. But this film also has one of the most ingenious killing devices ever put in a horror film. It’s a flying silver ball that senses body heat and charges for its victims in mid-air. Then it hooks to the victim’s forehead, and then the drill comes out of it and drills right into the victim’s brain—blood from the victim spurts out from the back of the sphere.

The film’s hero is a thirteen-year-old boy named Mike (Michael Baldwin, “Kenny & Company”) who is worried that his older brother and guardian (their parents are dead) Jody (Bill Thornbury) will leave him so he follows him everywhere. One day, he follows his brother to a funeral for Jody’s friend, who has just been murdered. When Mike spies through the bushes, he notices that after everybody leaves, a mortician comes along and carries the coffin without even breaking a sweat. Mike knows that something very strange is going on at the mortuary and there is something definitely not right with the mortician.

This character is known as the Tall Man. Apparently he is from another planet and to his aid are three-foot dwarves, who we learn are reanimated dead bodies crushed to half-size. Why are they crushed to half-size? I’m not sure I fully understand. Anyway, Mike gets Jody and Jody’s friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), an ice cream man, to believe him and they try to get to the bottom of this and solve the mystery of the Tall Man.

This sets in motion a series of scenes set in one night in which the trio find different clues and try to solve them. Along the way, they run into their share of scares. There’s a mysterious Lady in Lavender, who seduces men before killing them. There are those cloaked, hooded dwarves that attack (one of them even drives and chases them). There is a cheesy-looking fly-like creature that morphs from one of the Tall Man’s dismembered fingers (the Tall Man can grow them back). All of this is fun but the Tall Man’s menacing look and stance and walk is what gives me chills. There is one scene in particular where Mike has a dream that the Tall Man is standing right above his bed and that part scared me. And then there’s that raspy voice he has when he says things like, “I’ve been waiting for you” and “BOY!!!” Played by Angus Scrimm, the Tall Man of the greatest bogeymen ever put in a horror film and he has a great weapon along with him—that flying silver ball.

Scary and fun moments aside, there’s a really satisfying scene where Mike gets Jody to believe him about the Tall Man. He cuts off one of the Tall Man’s fingers, with yellow blood oozing from the wound. Mike takes the finger home and shows it to Jody. The finger is still wiggling and Jody simply says, “OK, I believe you.” I love that Jody is so quick to believe Mike after being shown that finger.

My complaint was how it all ended. The script plays with the audience so many times that when the film ends, it feels like a cop-out. I won’t give away the ending but I will say that it’s most disappointing. A weak payoff for a terrific setup. I can say, “See it but prepare to be disappointed.” I won’t have much of a problem saying that because the setup in “Phantasm” is most fun.

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