I had to let this movie sink in overnight before I could even begin to write about it. Phantasm is so incredibly hard for me to react to, because for every shot or scene that I loved, there was another one that made me squint my eyes, put my fingers against my temples and say “what?!” There’s this gut instinct to love it, and yet an unignorable desire to poke fun. I also get the impression that I’m not alone in this.
Allow me to elaborate…I think Phantasm may just be a perfect execution of the uncanny, not in spite of its problems, but because of them. These completely surreal moments are peppered throughout the film, and they create real, quality, capital D, dread. Early on we see Mike, the film’s 13 year old protagonist, sneaking around a graveyard to spy on the funeral of a family friend. Meanwhile, cloaked figures dart behind neighboring tombstones. The scene is reminiscent of the outdoor spookiness in The Turn of the Screw, in which an indistinct figure bobs behind some shrubs; never revealing itself, but lurking in broad daylight. We’re treated to so many dark passage ways and shadowy scenes in horror movies, that there’s really something spine-tingling about a threat in the sunshine. Phantasm is full of these types of moments, which yank us into discomfort because something strange is happening in a time or place it should not be happening. When Mike sees the Tall Man walking down a city sidewalk, right past his friend at the ice cream truck, it’s totally off putting; even though Angus Scrimm’s performance is completely grandiose. When the town soothsayer tells Mike that fear is the killer, her imaginary pain box disappears and she breaks into maniacal laughter. None of this is treated as unusual by the other characters, even though it totally should be. A severed finger crawls around a wooden box. A metal orb sucks the blood right out of someone’s cranium and spits it out like a little gory wishing fountain. A host of undead grab Mike in a dream, in which his bed sets in the town cemetery, and the Tall Man looms over him, shouting something like “BOY!” Two dudes play guitar on the front porch, with emphasis on a tuning fork. A gaudy gal in purple shows off her goods, pulls out a knife, and turns into Angus Scrimm just before she stabs someone, mid coitus. All of these scenes and more, believe it or not, are offered with little explanation. Although, they do all seem to lend significantly to the plot. It’s as if Coscarelli sat down and wrote a bunch of weird scenes, and then tried to imagine a way to tie them together. And as bad as that sounds, it’s not. This movie just works. Perhaps it’s Myrow and Seagrave’s original score that glues it together. Maybe it’s A. Michael Baldwin’s performance. Maybe it’s the fact that the evil entities of this film come from another dimension, so anything goes. This film is truly a patchwork of horror.
I only ever saw this movie once, at a very young age, and I never considered it a favorite. I am so glad I took the time to give it another chance, and that I got to do so in a theatre, treat of JJ Abrams 4K restoration. I wrote this review knowing practically nothing about the mythology of the Tall Man and the world he comes from, so I may have to give some of the sequels a go. Here are a handful of my favorite screen grabs from the trailer for the restored film.
Challenge Fulfilled: A Movie Starring Angus Scrimm