Directed by Don Coscarelli, 1979. Starring Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Angus Scrimm. 88 minutes.
The orphaned Pearson brothers—teenaged Mike and adult Jody—become aware of an unspeakable evil that has taken residence in a mortuary in their dying town. The brothers, with the assistance of musician/ice cream truck driver Reggie, pit themselves against the machinations of the Tall Man, a powerful, malignant force with the ability to manipulate dreams and reality.
First we have a few things to get out of the way. The story is slapdash, the dialogue is terrible, and most of the acting is awful (Angus Scrimm, playing the Tall Man, is the sole exception). There are blatant rip-offs from Star Wars (the dwarfs—apparently named “lurkers” later on in the series, although they don’t seem particularly lurky to me—strongly resemble Jawas) and Dune (the scene at the fortune-teller’s house is clearly modeled after the meeting between Paul and the Reverend Mother that opens up the first novel). Reggie Bannister looks like an idiot and Lavender’s body double could not be more obvious if the words These are not really Kathy Lester’s boobs were written across her chest.
If these are the things you care about, you’re reading the wrong review.
With Phantasm, Don Coscarelli created (for the most part) a sequence of ideas and images so mythic and iconic that they nullify many of the sins of performance and plot. It’s clear that Coscarelli put a lot of consideration into the particulars of the fantasy elements, making them fit into the vocation and modus operandi of the Tall Man. (Cut an evil mortician, and what does he bleed? Embalming fluid, of course! Makes perfect sense!) In such terms, the flying sphere is not as out of place as many have suggested—it’s just another tool for the embalming process, albeit an excessively dramatic one. Only the “flying bug” sequence doesn’t fit (although it does provide some amusing foreshadowing for a later Coscarelli project, Bubba Ho-Tep).
Similarly, while the Tall Man’s world and agenda aren’t fully realized yet—we only spend about 90 seconds on the other side of the portal—what details we do have are intriguing and tantalizing.
As for the Tall Man himself…Phantasm is definitely Angus Scrimm’s show. It’s very rare to see one actor dominate a production so much by saying so little. He overplays his dialogue a little—I felt “The funeral is about to begin!…sir!” might have benefited from a bit more subtlety—but it doesn’t really matter. The Tall Man is, first and foremost, a physical performance, and Scrimm can exude menace by simply walking. (Check out the scene where Mike watches Reggie restock the ice cream truck, and the Tall Man comes a-striding in from stage right.)
Of course Phantasm isn’t a perfect film; I’ve already glossed over most of the major flaws. Coscarelli does leave the “real-world” environment a bit underdeveloped. In many ways, what we see of the Tall Man’s environment seems more “real” than the dying small town the Pearson brothers live in. The human characters’ motivations are similarly kept a bit too vague (most obvious to me: I want to know why Jody has so much firepower, and specifically why he feels he needs that gun—and yes, I know there’s a lampshade that can explain that, but I don’t buy it 100%). But even then, I don’t think these things distract too much from the overall effect. In fact, they may actually serve to heighten them.
The disjointed nature of the story and the sketchiness of the characters contribute to an overall unreal and dreamlike atmosphere without resorting to dream logic. While Bannister (a legend nowadays, but back then he was just some balding idiot with a ponytail), Michael Baldwin (as Mike) and Bill Thornbury (as Jody) might not have been the most accomplished actors in the world, they have an easy rapport with each other. It’s not hard to buy Thornbury and Bannister as the best of friends. (Thornbury and Baldwin are a bit harder to buy as brothers, but that’s mainly because of the script—a hilarious early scene has Jody telling a friend about how he plans to dump Mike with some relatives and hit the open road, apparently having forgotten that Mike is less than two feet away from him and can almost certainly hear the conversation.)
So, overall, a bit of a rough journey, but if you’re trying to establish a modern horror mythology there are worse ways to start. The highest praise I can give Phantasm is this: By the time it was over, I found myself wanting to watch the sequels. Franchise films rarely have that effect on me.
Moment of Zen
The Tall Man’s planet.