The Plot: Mike is a 13 year old boy having to deal with the death of his parents. Jody, his twenty-something brother has been thrown into the uncomfortable position of having to raise the boy. Mike fears that Jody will flee from his responsibility and leave him to fend for himself and although Jody has dealt with certain fears of responsibility, he loves his little brother and will look after him. Jody spends the majority of his days hanging out with his good friend Reggie, the local ice cream man who plays music with Jody. These three good friends are about to embark upon a horrifying journey that they never could have imagined! After Mike witnesses the local mortician, referred to only as “The Tall man”, picking up a fully loaded coffin by himself and throwing it in the back of his hearse he becomes suspicious about all of the missing persons cases that have been popping up. Mike sets out to find just how this “Tall Man” is linked to the missing locals and where he comes from. Along the way he convinces Reggie and Jody to come along for the ride and thus the final confrontation is set in stone as this group of average Joe’s look to take on the forces of evil!
With The Phantasm series it is difficult to really start up any conversation on the films because no matter what you’re probably going to end up covering the same issues everyone else already has. That’s the trouble when writing on any popular piece of cinema unfortunately, but sometimes you just have to throw your hat in the ring and seeing as it is time for Halloween Horrors here at Varied Celluloid, there is no time like the present to fully cover one of genre cinema’s most beloved films! In my teenage years, I figured I had seen the majority of American horror classics. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween… heck, even the Leprechaun, Critters and Ghoulies movies! With The Phantasm series… as a kid things kind of blend together and after having sat and watched all four entries in the series some time last year the best explanation as to why I was never a devout or hardcore fan of the series is that excluding the third film, I had probably only seen snippets of any single one of the films. This came as a shock to even me, but as a kid you tend to forget the little things and I had always looked past these movies due to a rather cold opinion of them based upon misinformation. So, when I finally sat down to enjoy the entire series as a sort of refresher course – it turned ou that I was discovering a whole group of films I feel guilty for not truly discovering earlier on in my cinematic experience. As it turns out, the only entry in the series that I had seen the whole way through was this very first films. Although it may be the best of the bunch, they are all pretty great in their own way.
Now, the Phantasm series as a whole gets some very different observations depending on who you talk to. Fans of the series will talk about the great dream logic that translates from each movie to the next. They’ll talk about the excellent genre moments such as the introduction of the quad-barreled shotgun and all of the rather silly and fun moments that have defined Don Coscarelli’s intricate series. Then there are the detractors who will earnestly point out that for every one question that is answered in one of the sequels, there are thirty NEW and impossible to answer questions tacked onto things. Even though I think that both sides are right in different ways, the overall tone of fun is what makes the Phantasm movies a roaring success. Only in a series like this could you get away with getting little people to play zombies resurrected from beyond the grave at one-fourth their original size – and somehow do it in a manner that comes off as creepy and not just ridiculous. Go figure.
It seems that now since his great success with Bubba Ho-Tep, Don Coscarelli is finally getting some of the credit he truly deserves. He contributed what was considered to be the best entry into Showtime’s Masters of Horror series which was called Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and helped finally throw Bruce Campbell into a really great role without Sam Raimi. Although he has unfortunately left the Bubba Ho-Tep series, we could still be looking at a resurgence in this man’s career. However, horror fans are still waiting for him to complete his original, his baby, the Phantasm series. Until then, the best we can do is try to persuade as many people to absorb these films as we can. The first entry into the series, as is often the occasion, is the best and most remarkable to be sure. With this film we see a burgeoning Coscarelli playing with things such as genre and delving into the world of science fiction and horror with ease. The dream logic that the series has become well known for starts here, as we drift in and out of dream states and we see this horror unfold almost in a stream of consciousness. There are so many great and yet utterly bizarre moments, such as the brief glimpse we see of the Tall Man’s home planet as well as the incredibly strange ending that still confuses audiences to this day.
Although a film shot on a sometimes obvious budget, with an assortment of filmmakers probably not all that experienced (and this is the late seventies; not every Joe had the ability to practice making his own films in his backyard like nowadays) – the film still looks and holds up extraordinarily well. There are moments of obvious vision on the part of the director (that scene where the Tall Man is walking down the main street in front of Reggie and the ice cream truck is and always will be a defining moment in cinematic history) and it’s in those moments where you truly get to see how unique a film this was and still is. Where Phantasm shines most, and that is all of the films and even Coscarelli himself, is in the storytelling. Simple, effective and with as many trinkets thrown in to make it as amusing as possible. The Phantasm series on the outside looking in may seem like a really cool flick where giant balls fly around and drill into people’s heads (and that it may be as well), but what actually makes it a classic is it’s ability to do two things: tell a interesting story in an unusual way – and draw outlandish, hilarious and all around amusing three dimensional characters. With that kind of filmmaking at work, what more could you possibly need?
The original Phantasm is best viewed as an experiment in horror, style and storytelling. Coscarelli showed a real knack for handling tension and suspense right here in the beginning of his career. I have seen this first film many times before, but I find myself rewatching in every Halloween. For me it is one of those films that perfectly encapsulates the FEEL of Halloween. The fun and fear that we all felt exploring the night during October is directly represented by Mike here in Phantasm and the movie just gives off that feel. I love the look and feel of Phantasm and I consider it one of the best horror films of the seventies. I give it my highest honors and hope that other film fans who have NOT experienced this movie will give it a fair break. It has issues and will thoroughly confuse you as it goes along, but have fun with it!