The LA Times recently noted the 30th birthday of Phantasm, the first entry in director Don Coscarelli‘s quartet of Phantasm horror films. Scraped together from a meager budget, and shot and edited over a period of roughly 20 months, Phantasm and its sequels continue to suck me in with a frequency that I’m sure wreaks havoc with whatever Netflix algorithm crunches out the recommendations linking those films to L’Eclisse.
For Phantasm newbies here’s the story (the bare bones, so to speak), per its official film site:
Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury star as two brothers who discover that their local mortuary hides a legion of hooded killer dwarf-creatures, a flying silver sphere of death, and is home to the sinister mortician known only as the Tall Man. This nefarious undertaker (with an iconic performance by Angus Scrimm) enslaves the souls of the damned and in the process his character has entered the pantheon of classic horror villains.
Sounds kicky, right? What the synopsis leaves out, though—and what no synopsis could possibly accommodate—is precisely that elusive, unquantifiable element that makes the Phantasm films, in my eyes, so haunting. Whether due to exigencies of budget or imagination, the logic these films operate under is so far out and unpredictable, the effect is like watching a 6-hour nightmare unspool before your eyeballs.
How is one supposed to reconcile, exactly, hooded dwarves, funeral homes, and flying, eyeball-gouging orbs? Um, I’m not sure you can, really (believe me, I’ve tried!). And as the quartet progresses, the entire Phantasm mythology assumes ever-more grand and baroque dimensions. For example…
SPOILER ALERT: About those dwarves? Oh, they’re ultimately destined for another planet. Those flying silver balls? They’re storage containers for the souls of the recently departed. END SPOILERS.
Contrast that inability to reconcile so many dreamy, disparate elements with the boringly formulaic, teenage-slashing rhythms of Freddy and Jason, and you can begin to understand how I consider Don Coscarelli more in league with Suspiria-meister Dario Argento, than the Wes Craven of Scream and Elm Street.
And, much like Argento, whose capacity for creative bloodletting seems undiminshed by time, Coscarelli continues to direct. His last film, the cult-fave Bubba Ho-Tep, starred the always great Ossie Davis and Bruce Campbell. The trailer for the original Phantasm follows below:
In the LA Times: Happy Birthday, Tall Man! “Phantasm” Turns 30