Month of Horror Prevues: PHANTASM
“You think when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!”
In a small town, Jody (Bill Thornbury) a musician, has been taking care of his younger brother Mike (Michael Baldwin) since their parent’s deaths. At the local funeral home where their parents are interned, Mike becomes disturbed by a mortician only known as “The Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) that works there. This guy really gives off some very bad vibes. Mike begins to believe that The Tall Man is the one responsible for his parents deaths. Soon his paranoia and nightmares drive him to seek help from a fortune teller and he conveys his fears to Jody and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), an ice cream vendor. As more outrageous incidents begin to occur it becomes clear that Mike is right about the visions he’s been experiencing. Together the three attempt to fight the forces of The Tall Man and his evil army of deadly dwarves that are made from the bodies of the newly deceased in the mausoleum. If you didn’t think The Tall Man was scary enough by himself, he also owns a flying razor ball weapon that helps him dispatch his victims in gory ways. This terrifying tool has become an iconic image used in promotional artwork for the movie.
Phantasm became such a beloved cult movie because it revolves around a subject that everyone can relate to: the fear of death and the mystery that it presents to all of us. Mike’s motivation throughout the film seems to come from the inherent curiosity human beings have to confront their fears. This is an element that has made the movie especially intriguing to younger viewers over the decades. It’s essentially the classic story of the place (a cemetery, a haunted house) in Anytown USA which the local kids talk about and maybe has developed into an urban legend over the years. The movie also blurs the line between dreams and reality. Several sequences are filmed with a heightened nightmarish effect which only help to reinforce the power of the movies impact.
Phantasm was initially inspired by the story Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, as well as films like the sci-fi thriller Invaders From Mars (1953) and Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria (1977). It was a completely independent production made for only $300,000 filmed on the weekends over the course of a year. There was barely a script to work from and much of the dialogue and scenes were improvised by Don Coscarelli and his cast/crew. The end result is a truly terrific work of low budget horror cinema and a testament to what filmmakers can do through hard work, ingenuity and a pure love of making movies.