The problem with Phantasm is that on one level it’s rubbish. And that is as far as some people will see, but if you look a little deeper you’ll find a gem – although it is in the rough.
Phantasm is about Jody (Bill Thornbury), his younger brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) – who is an ice cream man – and their attempt to stop ‘The Tall Man’ (Angus Scrimm – Femme Fatales) from stealing corpses to turn into an undead, dwarf slave army. It’s that simple.
It is – unsurprisingly – a horror film, but it’s more of an old school horror film. It’s quite low on gruesome horror and gore. Most of the film is blood free – or yellow gloop free, as that passes for monster blood here – and there are only three on-screen deaths. It isn’t low on terror though. It’s the slow building kind.
The Tall Man and the glimpse of a hooded dwarf figure is all you get at the start of the film. Even though it pretty much begins with a death. It isn’t untill Mike breaks in to the funeral home that things change and the horror becomes full force.
It’s at this point in the movie that one of the most famous – iconic, no doubt – horror creations appears. The thing that most people will associate with Phantasm. The Silver Ball.
If a person knows nothing else about Phantasm they’ll probably know about the ball. It’s more recognizable than The Tall Man. So it is a surprise how little it’s in the film. It appears at this change point in the film, when the terror goes from unknown dread to full on attack. It whooshes into the film with no explanation, looking impressive. It’s here that the second death occurs. And it is the most bloodiest.
The ball only appears once more. It’s on-screen for less than 5 minutes. But boy does it create a lasting impression. However, there is no explanation for it. Like the old fortune-teller near the start of the film, it’s introduced and the it’s gone. No reason.
There are other elements that show up; things that make no sense; apparent holes in the story. From the Lady in Lavender to the weird red planet to the strange photograph Mike finds in the antique shop that’s never mentioned again. There is Myrtle, the house maid, who is introduced just to startle Reggie and is never seen again. The list seems long…
This slightly haphazard approach to story telling could be seen as a weakness, but it wasn’t the original intention. Most of it occurred through editing of the film to get it down from a bloated – though more logical – 3 hours to a more cinema friendly 90 minutes.
The film gets more and more bizarre untill it reaches its climax, and doesn’t so much end as implode! The ending could leave you scratching your head, in which case you’ve kind of missed the point. The whole film plays out like a nightmare. The sort that starts out strange and then drags you into the darkness.
There are dark lonely roads. Endless pursuit. An evil presence that just can’t be stopped. The terror when you think you’ve awoken, but you’re still asleep. This why it seems to make no sense, because dreams – and nightmares – seldom do.
There are a few niggles. The acting is, at times, hammy, and the special effects are a little ropey. Considering though that most of the actor where fairly inexperienced, it was made on a small budget, and this was only the third film made by Don Coscarelli, I’m willing to over look these. Released just a year after John Carpenter‘s Halloween, this movie helped to usher in the ‘Decade of Horror’ know as the the 1980’s.
It is, over all, extremely entertaining, as long as you’re willing to just go along for the ride. Try and make too much sense out of it all and you’ll not enjoy it – and have a headache.
I’m giving it 4/5 Bears.