Phantasm (1979)

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Cast: Bill Thornbury, Mike Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister
Director: Don Coscarelli
Nutshell:  Magnificently deranged and inventive creating a niche in horror movie history as one of the most bizarre and unique films ever created with one of the best ever tag lines to boot; “If this one doesn’t scare you…you’re already dead!”

 

Inventive…as the ad says “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!“” – Monster Movies Guide

Cleverly assembled…Not for the squeamish” – Halliwell’s Film Guide

just lean back into your casket and enjoy” – Creature Features

Simply has to be seen to be (dis)believed” – Time Out

wild horror fantasy…tremendously energetic” – Blockbuster Video

does provides viewers with thrills and unexpected twists” – Video Movies Guide

creepy, unpredictable nightmare on a shoestring contains enough wildly imaginative twists and inventions for a dozen horror movies” – Cult Flicks

genuine scares are plentiful and often refreshingly unusual” – Slimetime

 

The first time Phantasm was viewed was way back in the spring of 1979 at the flea pit Eros cinema in Piccadilly Circus that used to specialize in films of the Russ Meyer variety and other sexploitation trash classics and indeed the cinema that John Landis had in mind when shooting the “porn cinema” scene in London for . The Eros features in the background of any grainy 1970’s postcard shot or indeed millions of photographs taken every day by tourists from the furthest flung parts of the world. The cinema’s selling point was its location and pretty much nothing else. It was thrust prominently onto Piccadilly Circus right under the famous Neon Billboards on the corner of London’s theatre district on Shaftesbury Avenue.

For millions of starry eyes tourist embarking in London for the first time from lands afar and not so “liberal” The Eros served as the perfect Venus Fly Trap for those easily seduced and lured into the less than immaculate nor particularly comfortable or inviting basement hole. The place reeked of seediness but then half the fun of watching “these” dirty movies was to be experienced and savoured in the atmosphere and once in a while, depending on what was screening; the eclectic audience of wonderful Midnight Cinema Freaks. This was a special occasion for the cinema even if they didn’t realize it. There were probably several of the best horror writers and analysts sitting in that flea pit cinema at that very screening. Mark Kermode and Kim Newman almost surely.

The seating was barely above 100 seats if even that and considering it was the British Premiere of a film that had garnered quite a bit of a following Stateside, it was indeed not an occasion for the big media guns and I doubt very much if the British press was represented at all. Phantasm arrived from across the pond with a bit of a reputation and a poster that to date remains one of the very best ever for a horror film, or any film for that matter. A moment here to pause on the poster itself quite simply because it absolutely deserves a mention. The poster sets the tone quite perfectly for this particular movie and the images are quite stunningly designed and presented with immense skill. The poster features the terror, as well as the intriguing major elements of the film in a hellish aura that is nightmarishly scary and warped. A better poster from a horror film in modern times there has simply not been.

Horror films had always been the preferred choice of cinema in our household and when my brother arrived with an advert that heralded the films arrival at a midnight screening, it didn’t take much to convince us that this was an event that could absolutely not be missed at any cost. We arrived at the cinema well in time and joined an audience of horror geeks and eager beavers lined up to get a bite of this new entity that had been creating waves and ruffling a few feathers along the way. It had been making a dent in Variety’s top 50 Box Office earners chart despite being a film of minuscule budget with no big guns to fire up media exposure yet with the best and most memorable horror films, it was word of mouth that was the driving force behind its startling success and the last film to have blazed its way to glory had been John Carpenter’s superlative Halloween, a film that had similarly arrived with no fanfare to the English shores but had grown from nothing into a a film that had more legs than any other. Halloween, fuelled by nothing but word of mouth ran and ran and ran for months and months in London with the Box Office growing each week as word got out of its stunning mastery. Phantasm followed a similar trajectory if not perhaps quite as successful yet there was clearly something about this non-entity that catapulted it from being just another cheap horror flick to a movie that has slowly but surely turned into a genre classic of humongous proportions.

The reaction that opening night it has to be said was one of dumbfounded bewilderment and there was a feeling in the audience of having the rug pulled out under their feet as they collectively reeled from the events unfolding on screen not knowing exactly what to make of it.
To even attempt to describe the events or plot of the film is akin to explaining one of those dreams that you sometimes have when you have been on some heavy medication that is vivid and full of disjointed images that individually make little sense but as a whole somehow manage to click together to create something deliriously surreal that was unlike any that came before it and in the nearly 40 years subsequently has had virtually no peer in the category of the bizarre. Yet, the film has not only endured but its appeal has crossed generations casting its deranged appeal far and wide and commands legions of dedicated followers and has spawned numerous sequels and delighted millions with its aura and its daring to take a route that no film has ever taken before it or since it was created. Writer Director Don Coscarelli, just 22 at the time has crafted a film as unique as any that has ever been created within the horror genre or any genre for that matter even if its narrative leaves most viewers befuddled like never before. Quite simply, there has never been anything quite like it.

To attempt to review this film would be an attempt at explaining, to some extent, its plot and this maybe the reason that I have never dared to venture down this avenue but now armed with confidence and the memory of the film fresh in mind from the night before’s restoration screening, perhaps the time has finally arrived so here goes.

The film revolves around the misadventures of two brothers who have recently lost their parents (somewhat mysteriously) and they are coping for themselves though two difficult years have passed. The younger of the two, Jody is just 13 years old and his main worry and preoccupation is with the fear that his elder brother Mike is about to abandon him and move on leaving him to cope on his own. Naturally he is extremely concerned and has taken to stalking his brother to try to make sure he doesn’t leave him behind. The opening scene introduces us to an amorous couple making out in the cemetery that surrounds the wonderfully macabre and daunting looking mausoleum by the name of “Morningside”. As the couple reach the climax of their tryst, the blond beauty reaches for a sharp dagger and stabs poor Tommy brutally and we move swiftly to his funeral being held at the Mausoleum/cemetery with the kid brother watching the proceedings from a distance using binoculars.

When the ceremony is over, he is stupefied to watch a rather Tall imposing figure (the legendary and fabulously named Angus Scrimm) lift the coffin as though he was lifting a piece of tissue and shoving the coffin single-handedly into a hearse then moments later seen stomping down a street in the most stupendously menacing manner. Meanwhile there are some weird sounds, similar to growls from nearby and we can see some hooded figures hiding behind gravestones seemingly waiting for the right moment to pounce. Jody flees in shock realising all is not as it should be and when the Tall Man glowers in his direction he takes a tumble from his bicycle not unlike when Carrie unseated the fat kid in De Palma’s classic for daring to taunt her with “Creepy Carrie”.

Later that night while the younger brother swigs a beer and works on the family car in the garage he hears the strange growling sounds again convincing him that something or somebody is most definitely out to get him. Mike, the elder brother remains unconvinced. Jody unwisely letting curiosity get the better of him breaks into the Cemetery late at night and explores the elongated and very ominous corridors within when he is chased by a man looking rather like an irate Donald Trump who then tries to hold him down violently when a judiciously timed bite to the arm saves the day because flying at speed down the corridors is a silver sphere that sprouts an arrow and hones in on its target with deadly and fatal accuracy; the forehead of the Tall Man’s henchman. The sphere then unleashes a drill that bores into Trump with bits of nasty rubbery flesh flying in all directions and finally, gloriously spouting a few jets gushing blood. Without a doubt one of the most memorable and iconic deaths of all time in horror cinema.

Having survived that Jody is then confronted by the Tall Man and makes a run for it slamming a metal door on his hand and then he hacks the Tall Man’s fingers off which ooze a fluorescent jelly like substance and they continue to wriggle and twitch like a lizards tail detached form its body. Quick witted Jody captures a finger in a little wooden box and heads home with evidence with which he can finally convince his brother of the horrendous dangers they are confronted with. He also believes his parents went the same way; a the hands of the Tall Man. Mike reacts with incredulous horror as the finger morphs into a furry spider puppet creature that continues to violently try to snap and bite its way out of captivity. The finger turned spider thing is finally subdued and minced to a pulp in the waste disposal unit in the sink. Think what you may, it’s a brilliant sequence of scenes, in turn terrifying, heart stoppingly gruesome, weird and hilarious. Gradually they discover that the Tall Man is thriving on murder and having his victims embalmed and then squashed into midgets and housed in small cylinders after which they are transported through the “Gates of Hell” to a netherworld where they are used as slaves in a magnificent grand design instigated by the master of ceremonies; Angus Scrimm AKA The Tall Man.

They have all sorts of evil accomplices, namely Trump and The sexy blonde. There is also Granny, with her psychic powers who is something straight out of Eraserhead via John Waters.

Finally with Mike on board as well as their good friend Reggie, an ice cream truck vendor they forge an alliance to try to unravel the madness that surrounds them but will the Tall Man thwart their designs and turn them into dead dwarf slaves or will they be able to arrest the unstoppable and relentless forces of Evil which include surviving the mysterious graveyard sex symbol and the marauding, blood drilling sphere and restore sanity and order to their lives and community? It is a tall order (no pun intended) and the film reaches a hair-raising climax with the Tall Man on the attack as never before.

The film is magnificently deranged and inventive creating a niche in horror movie history as one of the most bizarre and unique films ever created. It also serves as a metaphor of sorts about the fear of death as well as a tale of the of young teenager’s empowerment and it works well in that realm but the over-all impression is of having watched a disjointed, surreal dream that somehow holds together to create one of the most unique and sometimes disturbing and often hilarious horror films ever shot. Don Coscarelli who wrote and directed this epic at the tender age of 22 clearly poured his heart and soul into this film and it shows.

More than worth a mention if Malcolm Seagrave’s suitably eerie score featuring some excellent use of the organ, so unique and so very strange; again, helping to set aside the film from the rest as well help enhance the delirious events on screen. Don Coscarelli mentioned that in those days he had been listening to Pink Floyd and Vangelis and Seagrave with his organ and in one track the tabla does an outstanding job and Phantasm does indeed have a memorable soundtrack.

It may not be a film to suit all tastes and is as far from the mainstream as could be yet has garnered a faithful and growing fan following over the years that continues to grow and grow and grow beyond what he could ever have imagined. The film has spawned several sequels, none of which match the quirky brilliance and mad cap inventiveness of the first and has recently been lovingly restored by J. J. Abrams and his team and it was indicative of its ability to transcend and reach generations of viewers as at least 50% of the audience a that last nights London Film Festival screening were born after the film was released originally way back in 1979. Maybe not the most coherent nor the best horror film ever made but certainly among the most unique. An unforgettable viewing experience and to the most part, a hoot and a joy!