31 Screams in October, #4: Phantasm (1979)

Posted: October 5, 2014 in Movie Review
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Phantasm (1979)

Director: Don Coscarelli

Starring: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Angus Scrimm

You know those dreams which are so vivid you’d swear that the events that take place within them must be real? Never mind whether you consider it a good dream or a bad dream; what you see is so easily recognizable to you that it must be real. Worse is when you wake up so disoriented that you’re not certain if you had actually been asleep, or if you’ve only just now lost consciousness. In that case, how is one supposed to make sense of ANYTHING they’ve seen? Similarly, Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” plays with the audience’s minds, challenging us to determine whether anything we’re witnessing is really happening to the characters, or if it’s all just one elaborate dream sequence.

Mike (Michael Baldwin) is a young kid whose parents have both died in recent memory, and older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury, sporting a late 1970’s Han Solo haircut) has been left with the responsibility of looking after him… a responsibility of which he’s grown weary. His plans of leaving town are brought to a halt when a mutual friend of his and ice cream truck driver Reggie (Reggie Bannister) suddenly turns up dead. Following the funeral, Mike notices some peculiar behavior from the mortician, and is shocked and horrified to see this elderly gentleman lifting the coffin all by himself, and loading it into the back of his hearse.

The mortician, who will come to be known only as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), is definitely up to something, but it’s far stranger than anyone would dare guess. Systematically, he has taken the bodies of the recently deceased (most of which, it is assumed, he has been the direct cause), shrunk them down to dwarf size, and is using them as slaves and as foot soldiers. There seems to be a portal within the mortuary which leads to another dimension. Though only briefly seen, what’s on the other side is a world with a red sky and a much hotter, less hospitable atmosphere. The Tall Man himself, although he has the appearance of a man in his 50’s-60’s (the actor himself was 53 at the time), is something not quite human. His blood, or whatever you can call it, is a mustard yellow instead of a deep red. Nothing seems to stop him, only slow him down. Actor Angus Scrimm doesn’t have much dialogue outside of the exclamation “Boy!” but he creates an iconic character out of the Tall Man just from his menacing stare.

The real star of the movie, however, is the Tall Man’s most infamous weapon: the silver spheres. Although they would later take on whole new characteristics (and colors) in future installments, these flying, shiny balls of doom first made an impact with one very effective function, in which the spheres attach themselves to the forehead, produce a drilling mechanism and proceed to drain the victim of all their blood. It’s completely random (like a lot of things in this movie), but man is it ever memorable!

What is also memorable about “Phantasm” is how truly confusing its plot is. Without the ability to get into the director’s head, I have no way of knowing whether Don Coscarelli originally had a laid out plan for the direction of his story, although the three sequels released since then tend to point towards a strategy of making it up as he goes along. Setting aside the existence of movies 2 through 4 and looking at “Phantasm” as a stand-alone, the ambiguity of what’s real vs. what isn’t remains left up to the viewer to resolve. Aside from an ending that feels as though it was ripped off by “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” there isn’t much to firmly place it in either category, and maybe that’s as it should be.

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