Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
Original independent horror films don’t get much more independent than 1979’s Phantasm.
Or more original, for that matter.
With a miniscule budget, limited resources, but a seemingly bottomless reserve of imagination and ingenuity, writer-director Don Coscarelli brought to life a spellbinding Gothic adventure, a sprawling sci-fi/fantasy epic set in an ordinary American suburb. Mashing together the likes of Ray Bradbury, Dario Argento, and Frank Herbert, Phantasm is unlike almost any other horror film you’ll ever encounter.
The film follows brothers Mike (A. Thomas Baldwin), Jody (Bill Thornbury) and their buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister) as they find their quiet town suddenly plagued by all manner of weirdness, much of it seeming to stem from a malevolent undertaker known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm).
Mysterious deaths and disappearances abound, strange, hooded dwarfs cause trouble, and when young Mike creeps into the mortuary late at night, he is attacked by a silver ball that sprouts blades and does all kinds of wonderfully hideous things to any human body it hits.
I would explain where all this weirdness is going, but that’d be spoiling things. And also, frankly, even having seen Phantasm multiple times, trying to explain what actually happens in the damn thing is tricky. The eerie, dreamlike tone Coscarelli gives even the more normal of scenes an off-putting rhythm. You never know when reality is going to suddenly crumble to accommodate some new ghoul.
Phantasm is a unique beast, but it still managed to strike a chord with audiences. Coscarelli would direct three sequels, and produce a fifth and final entry that brought the saga of The Tall Man to an official close before Scrimm’s death. The Phantasm series, while never reaching the kind of mass awareness of series like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th, enjoys a devoted cult following and has been quietly influential across multiple mediums. Captain Phasma in the Star Wars sequel trilogy is a direct reference, thanks to JJ Abrams’ love of the film. He loved Phantasm so much, he tasked his company Bad Robot with creating the gorgeous restoration that is now widely available.
As for Coscarelli, outside of the Phantasm films he has worked on numerous other cult oddities, including Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep, and John Dies at the End, continuing to spin entrancing new cinematic worlds with limited budgets, miniscule resources, and that seemingly limitless imagination and ingenuity.
Our trick or treat celebration continues with Fear Street: 1994! Join us as we dissect the first of Netflix’s throwback slasher trilogy that took the summer by storm!
Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co anytime before midnight on Thursday!
Someone needs to confirm for me whether the sequels to Phantasm are worth my time, because I need more of the specific vibes Don Coscarelli managed to create with his first horror film.
That vibe in part clearly comes from the instinct to throw in every idea he had for a potential horror movie into this one. A low-budget, go-for-broke approach to filmmaking aiming to make sure the movie leaves an impression on its audience, even at the cost of story coherence. However, the specific mood Phantasm creates absolutely leaves coherence as the last thing I care about with the dreamlike atmosphere of the movie washing over me. Even the genre trappings boldly throw coherence to the wind. Outside of the general mood of “horror”, Phantasm swings back and forth between ghost story and sci-fi horror with only the loosest thread connecting them.
Another key to the mood of this piece is that much of the cast and crew were new to filmmaking and friends in real life prior to making this. So up to and even when things start to ramp up, Phantasm has the feel of a hangout movie to it. Including letting the characters share an extended jam session on their guitars to setup Chekhov’s Tuning Fork. The acting’s not all there all the time, but this movie does boast an all-around likable cast of central characters in Mike, Jody, and Reggie. It’s a good time watching them work together when they’re united, even as they struggle to figure out the glimpses they get of the true nature of the Tall Man’s schemes.
Verdict: TREAT (@WC_WIT)
Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):
What most stuck with me the first time I saw Phantasm — what digs into my head and refuses to leave — is the singular offbeat energy Don Coscarelli bottled for this thing. Whether it’s the unrelenting and uneasy dream logic that keeps viewer and protagonist alike unmoored until reveals star flying fast and furious, or the way Angus Scrimm bends the film around his screen presence with just a single word, Phantasm is a hell of a mood.
It’s also a film that really nails when and how to answer its own questions to best effect (“late in the game,” and “not very clearly, mate” respectively), ensuring the time we’ve spent with the characters just trying to stick by each other gets used for maximum investment once the full scope of the threat is understood. Even while the film gets to revel a bit in its own outlandishness.
Which is a rather loquacious and flowery way of saying “that movie about the creepy tall guy in the magic morgue with the evil pinballs is some trippy shit,” but this is a seriously memorable trip that — even after more than 40 years — still holds plenty of The Good Stuff for fans of the genre.
Verdict: TREAT (@BLCAgnew)
Finding out that Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes was a major influence on Coscarelli went along way towards unlocking why this film just hits in such a special way. Like Bradbury’s seminal Gothic Americana novel, Phantasm turns the rites of passage for a young man in Anytown, USA into a full-blown cosmic duel between forces of light and darkness. The Tall Man is leering, gleeful Death incarnate, a figure of ultimate evil that can probably never be defeated, but against whom our heroes can measure themselves as they stumble ill-equipped but earnest into battle.
The DIY energy adds to that earnest feeling. Whatever the film lacks in polished acting, it more than makes up for with a lived in, authentic energy. You really do feel like these guys all know and care about each other, and the low budget fixes to bringing to life the various otherworldly entities are always charming as hell.
And for as unpolished as Phantasm might be in places, Coscarelli shows an innate knack for playing with genre and side-stepping aggravating beats. While the first chunk of the movie is about Jody disbelieving Mike’s (frankly unbelievable) tales, Coscarelli doesn’t waste his time dragging things out before Jody gets on board and our fellowship start taking the fight to the ghouls.
Verdict: TREAT (@TheTrueBrendanF)
My first awareness of Phantasm was not a trailer, nor specifically the Tall Man or his diabolical spheres. It was simply seeing the painted poster art which, along with the phantasmagorical title, promised a fantastical nightmare that I was immediately on board for.
Often when 70s or 80s movies have incredible artwork, the movie just isn’t going to live up to the promise. Phantasm is a weird exception where it delivered exactly what I wanted: a surreal dream narrative with weird terrors and insane nightmare logic.
It’s probably been something like 10-15 years since i viewed it (as a very early Netflix streaming offering), and I’ve wanted to check out the new restoration for some time. I’d forgotten most of the story, primarily recalling the weirdness and tone. Just as viewing the film lived up to the poster, seeing it again lived up to my fond memory of this iconic and enjoyably offbeat independent horror classic.
Verdict: TREAT (@Austin Vashaw)
By unanimous decision: TREAT!
Next week’s pick: