Phantasm (1979) [31 Days of Gore]

I’ll be featuring a Phantasm movie each day leading up to my review of RaVager, which you can expect to go up on Saturday.

Phantasm RaVager comes out in select theaters Friday and I intend to feature it here Saturday. All the films are finally available on VOD starting today. (For a stupidly long time, Phantasm II has been the only movie you could get instantly.)

It’s about time, too, because I sold my DVD copy of the original several years ago, only to discover it’s been listed for upwards of seventy bucks on Amazon, presumably to make room and/or build hype for the 4K remastered edition. This is fine other than the fact it doesn’t come out until December. And it’s not like these things never get postponed.

yeah, I don’t think so

The first two Phantasm movies were a big deal when I was a kid. Seeing the original again with fresh eyes, I can see why. It contains almost as much fantasy as it does horror and there’s a strong hint of science fiction, too. All the major elements they’ll play with in the sequels—the inter-dimensional Tall Man, the flying spheres, the psychotic dwarves—are firmly established by director Don Coscarelli. This isn’t just a series, it’s a world.

The premise is a hoot: Mike and Jody, 13 and 24 respectively, are a couple of boys trying to get by after the death of their parents. Following the funeral of a mutual friend, which only compounds their grief, Mike witnesses the freakishly tall caretaker (horror icon Angus Scrimm) lift the casket with one arm and toss it into the back of his hearse with inhuman strength. To explain what the Tall Man is up to would ruin the best part of the mythology, but I can say it’s incredibly ambitious for a $300,000 movie (about a million bucks by today’s standards).

Mike visits the local fortune teller who not only makes him do the Gom Jabbar test from Dune, she actually says, “Fear is the killer.” (Later, a scene is set in a bar called Dune’s, suggesting the references to Frank Herbert’s novel are more homage than rip-off.) What’s weird is the fortune teller can make things magically appear out of the thin air, but Mike thinks this is perfectly normal compared to what he saw in the cemetery earlier. (Look, you can explain strong people and short people, but not literal fucking magic.) The prediction the fortune teller makes isn’t just wrong, it’s obviously a setup for a scene the filmmakers abandoned by the time they got around to making the end of the movie.

There’s a lot of this improvisational filmmaking, which somehow adds to the movie’s charm more than it detracts, even as the logic steadily drains out of the story. Reggie Bannister’s character, Reggie, is killed once off screen and once again on screen, but both times he comes merrily strolling back into the picture (if I remember correctly, fake-killing him in the sequels becomes a bit of a tradition). The first time he cheats his movie death, he informs the main characters he totally rescued some characters off screen, but they’re safe now so don’t worry about them anymore (read: the talent were probably no longer available so the movie needed a throwaway line to explain their absence).

Despite its constant jump-scares, Phantasm is likely too tame and pleasantly paced for fans of modern horror, but that’s not to say I ever found it boring. Angus Scrimm’s performance, though brief, is right on the edge of over-acting, which is actually perfect for a movie like this. And the minimalist yet skillful cinematography is fitting for the strange subject matter, evoking Kubrickian framing which compliments the simplistic score. I’ve always admired Phantasm, but I think I like it a little more than ever now. A few years ago on this blog, I called it dull. I’m glad to admit I was wrong. It’s much better than it has any right to be.

Phantasm 2 used to be my favorite of the series, but I haven’t seen it in about twenty years. We’ll see how it holds up tomorrow.

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