During the 70’s, the horror genre had made huge steps in moving away from the cobwebby old backdrops of Hammer’s various movies thanks to the ground breaking work of such films as George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; two films that dragged scary movie’s into the modern age on both sides of the screen. Taking this concept of horror not being limited to dusty old period pieces, filmmakers started enthusiastically setting their horrific scenarios in a more contemporary setting and thus we got the 70’s wave of fear flicks that gifted us such gruesome gems as Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dawn Of The Dead and The Exorcist; but one thing all these movie noticably have in common is that they are all gritty, realistic exercises in horror and all feature tangible terrors that seem all too real…
Enter Phantasm, Don Coscerelli’s cracking indie surrealistic nightmare that takes such flimsy constructs such as logic and reality and tosses them over it’s shoulder like a used tissue and forges on it’s bizarre path like an LSD fueled fever dream.
13 year old Mike, a precocious child with huge abandonment issues after the death of his parents, has been sticking to his older brother Jody like glue due to his very real fear that he will eventually be abandoned. Jody, temporarily home to attend the funeral of a murdered friend, is very much the free spirit; cool, a wizard on the electric guitar and very, very flaky and can’t wait until he can hop in his 1971 Plymouth ‘Cuda and make this sleepy town a memory. However, both find that their plans are going to temporarily put on hold when Mike stumbles across a freaky, fantastical (some might say phantasmagorical) conspiracy concerning the exceptionally creepy funeral director at the local mausoleum. It seems this “Tall Man” is attempting to carry out an interdimentional plot to resurrect the dead in the form of a snarling, hooded dwarven army (think zombiefied Jawas) and is progressively taking out people in the area to bolster recruitment so Mike, Jody and family friend Reggie strain to expose his otherworldly operation and send this being back to whatever hell he came from. Things are further complicated by the fact that the Tall Man not only seems to share some sort psychic link with Mike but also genuinely seems unkillable AND has many fiendish agents and devices at his command – the most lethal of all being his dreaded, death-dealing Silver Spheres.
Made with very low resources (even for the 70’s), innovation is the key to Phantasm’s success – well, that and the fact that it deliberately makes as much sense as watching David Lynch movie dubbed into a foreign language – that and director Coscerelli’s talent of creating a seemingly endless stream of unforgettable images that sear themselves into the frontal lobe like a branding iron. While it often trips up thanks to it’s admittedly prehistoric effects work, the world it creates more than makes up for the odd weird alien bug marionette or wonky make up which is why the series has managed to persevere for a further four sequels.
Proving that making a film that adheres to conventional cinematic logic is for fucking cowards, Phantasm makes up it’s own rules as it goes along, giving you the feeling that reality itself is unraveling like that shitty jumper you’ve got that you never got round to throwing out.
The film even starts with the merging (or should I say, confusing) of metaphor with plot as the sex equals death equation is driven home when a hapless dude unwisely getting his freak on in a graveyard is suddenly stabbed to death by his shapely (or should I say shape-SHIFTING) conquest, and things gets progressively weirder from there. Our leads are two, shaggy haired brothers who, while boasting superb survival skills (Mike’s escape from a locked room by combining a hammer, a drawing pin and a shotgun cartridge would turn even MacGyver’s hair white), are very much atypical of the usual kind of hero you get in this kind of film and their almost bohemian ways connect well with the more outlandish aspects of the plot – of which there are many…
Ah yes… The weird shit. While Coscerelli tells his trippy take on hippy horror relatively straight, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t strewn out dream sequences and unpredictable fake outs literally all throughout the running time. Under the squinted eye of the late, great Angus Scrimm as the marauding mortitian, Phantasm’s nightmarish visuals peak with the showstopping appearance of the shiny round balls that whizz around his property, drilling holes in the skulls of any and all foolish enough to engage in a spot of B&E on the premises. It’s startling, original and iconic as hell but their limited use does somewhat raise the sneaking suspicion that Coscerelli probably has fairly as loose a grasp of this universe as the rest of us as these slicing, dicing, silver gore-o-matics only turn up twice during the whole film. Of course, to those of us who rightly feel like the less you know about what’s going on the scarier and cooler things are, the fact that the filmmakers seem to be making it all up as they go along achieves a fantastical, anything-goes tone that will hugely offend those in the audience that demands their scares laid out for them with a neat little explanation all tied up in a bow.
Unpredictable, unforgettable and containing one of the all time great underrated horror scores, Phantasm is a true American original which leans full tilt into the kind of dream infested, rubber reality Wes Craven made popular with A Nightmare On Elm Street five years later.
So if your taste in horror is a little more esoteric than the usual hack and slash formula and you’re ready for a wild ride where realism is merely optional, Phantasm will bring you to fan-gasm from sphere from eternity…