Phantasm is a 1979 American science fantasy horror film directed, written, photographed, and edited by Don Coscarelli. The first film in the Phantasm franchise, it introduces the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), a supernatural and malevolent undertaker who turns the dead of Earth into dwarf zombies to be sent to his planet and used as slaves. He is opposed by a young boy, Mike (Michael Baldwin), who tries to convince his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and family friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) of the threat.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Don Coscarelli|
|Produced by||D. A Coscarelli|
|Written by||Don Coscarelli|
|Edited by||Don Coscarelli|
New Breed Productions
|Distributed by||AVCO Embassy Pictures|
|Box office||$12 million|
Phantasm was a locally financed independent film; the cast and crew were mostly amateurs and aspiring professionals. Though initial reviews were mixed in regards to the dream-like, surreal narrative and imagery, later reception was more positive and the film became a cult classic. It has appeared on several critics' lists of best horror films, and it has been cited as an influence on later horror series. It was followed by four sequels: Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998) and Phantasm: Ravager (2016).
The film begins at Morningside Cemetery, where during sexual intercourse Tommy is stabbed by the Lady in Lavender (actually the Tall Man in another form). At the funeral, Tommy's friends, Jody and Reggie, believe he committed suicide. Jody's younger brother, Mike, who secretly has been observing the funeral, witnesses a Tall Man, the Morningside mortician, lift Tommy's 500-pound casket into his hearse instead of completing the burial.
Later, Jody is seduced by the Lady in Lavender and taken to the cemetery to have sex. However, the two are interrupted by Mike, who has been following Jody and has been driven out of his hiding place by a short, hooded figure. Mike tries to tell Jody about the hooded figure, but Jody dismisses the story. Mike investigates further. At the mausoleum, Mike narrowly avoids a silver sphere flying through the air. He is accosted by a caretaker but escapes after the sphere impales itself on the caretaker's skull and drills into his brain. Mike then flees the Tall Man, cutting off his fingers. Taking one of the fingers with him, Mike escapes the mausoleum.
The finger is enough to convince Jody about Mike's stories. Reggie, who witnesses the finger-turned-insect attack Mike, joins the brothers in their suspicions. Jody goes to the cemetery alone but is chased away by dwarves and a seemingly driverless hearse. He is rescued by Mike in Jody's Hemicuda. Running the hearse off the road, they discover that is was driven by one of the hooded figures, a re-animated and shrunk Tommy, whom they hide in Reggie's ice cream truck
Reggie and Jody resolve to defeat the Tall Man, while Mike is hidden at an antique store owned by Jody's friends Sally and Sue. There, he discovers an antique photograph of the Tall Man and insists on being taken home. On the way, Mike, Sally and Sue come across the overturned ice cream truck. They are attacked by a mob of hooded dwarves. Mike manages to escape, presuming the girls and Reggie dead.
Jody goes to the mausoleum to kill the Tall Man. Mike, who is locked in his room for safety but escapes, runs into the Tall Man, who was waiting for him outside his front door. He kidnaps Mike in a hearse, but Mike escapes and causes the hearse to strike a pole and explode. Looking for Jody in the mausoleum, Mike is attacked by the silver sphere until Jody destroys it with a shotgun. Together with Reggie, they enter a brightly lit room, which is filled with canisters containing more dwarves. Mike catches a brief glimpse through a strange portal, seeing a red, hot planet where the dwarves are toiling as slaves.
A sudden power outage separates the trio. Left alone in the room, Reggie activates the portal, creating a powerful vacuum from which he narrowly escapes. In the ensuing storm, Reggie is stabbed by the Lady in Lavender while Jody and Mike flee and the mausoleum vanishes. Jody devises a plan to trap the Tall Man in a deserted mine shaft. The Tall Man attacks Mike at home, chases him outside, where he eventually falls into the mine shaft and is buried under an avalanche of rocks triggered by Jody.
After this, Mike wakes up in his bed, still worried about the Tall Man. Reggie, still alive, tells Mike that he had a nightmare, that Jody died in a car wreck and proposes a road trip. When Mike enters his bedroom to pack, the Tall Man appears and hands crash through the bedroom mirror, pulling Mike inside.
- After being intimidated by Scrimm on the set of a previous film, Coscarelli decided that Scrimm would make a great villain. Initially, Scrimm had little input into the character, but he made more of a contribution as Coscarelli began to trust his instincts. Scrimm was outfitted in lifts and a suit too small for him in order to make him seem even taller and skinnier. Coscarelli says of Scrimm, "I really didn't have any idea that he would take it to the level that he did. ... I could see it was going to be a very powerful character."
- A. Michael Baldwin as Mike Pearson:
- Coscarelli attributes the enduring popularity of the film to young audiences who respond to Mike's adventures. After they worked together in a prior film, Coscarelli wrote a film in which Baldwin could star.
- Bill Thornbury as Jody Pearson:
- Jody is Mike's older brother. After their parents die, Jody becomes Mike's guardian, but Jody confides in his friends that he's uncomfortable with the responsibility.
- Don Coscarelli based the character of Reggie on his friend Reggie Bannister, for whom the role was written; they then twisted the character into new directions. Reggie was designed to be an everyman, a loyal friend, and the comic relief.
- Kathy Lester as Lady in Lavender:
- The Tall Man appears in the form of the Lady in Lavender, which he uses to seduce and kill Tommy, Jody's friend. Laura Mann appears as Kathy Lester's double, credited as Double Lavender.
- Bill Cone as Tommy
- Mary Ellen Shaw as the fortune-teller
- Terrie Kalbus as the fortune-teller's granddaughter
- Lynn Eastman as Sally
Film scholar John Kenneth Muir interprets the film as being about mourning and death. Many of the film's fans are young boys, aged 10–13. According to Angus Scrimm, the film "gives expression to all their insecurities and fears". Scrimm states that the theme of loss and how, by fantasizing about death, the young protagonist deals with the deaths in his family drives the story. Coscarelli identifies it as a "predominately male story" that young teens respond to. Scrimm explains the popularity of the film as fans responding to themes of death, and the Tall Man himself represents death. Muir describes the Tall Man as embodying childhood fears of adults and states that the Tall Man wins in the end because dreams are the only place where death can be defeated. American views of death are another theme:
I had a compunction to try to do something in the horror genre and I started thinking about how our culture handles death; it’s different than in other societies. We have this central figure of a mortician. He dresses in dark clothing, he lurks behind doors, they do procedures on the bodies we don't know about. The whole embalming thing, if you ever do any research on it, is pretty freaky. It all culminates in this grand funerary service production. It's strange stuff. It just seemed like it would be a great area in which to make a film.— Don Coscarelli, Los Angeles Times interview
Dreams and surrealism are also an important part of Phantasm. Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle compares Phantasm to the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Luis Buñuel in terms of weirdness. Savlov describes the film as existentialist horror and "a truly bizarre mix of outlandish horror, cheapo gore, and psychological mindgames that purposefully blur the line between waking and dreaming." Gina McIntyre of the Los Angeles Times describes the film as surreal, creepy, and idiosyncratic. Muir writes that Phantasm "purposely inhabits the half-understood sphere of dreams" and takes place in the imagination of a disturbed boy.
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After seeing the audience reaction to jump scares in Kenny and Company, writer-director Don Coscarelli decided to do a horror film as his next project. His previous films had not performed well, and he heard that horror films were always successful; branching into horror allowed him to combine his childhood love of the genre with better business prospects. The original idea was inspired by Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Coscarelli had initially sought to adapt the story to film, but the license had already been sold. The theme of a young boy's difficulty convincing adults of his fears was influenced by Invaders from Mars (1953). Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) and its lack of explanations was another influence on Coscarelli. The soundtrack was influenced by Goblin and Mike Oldfield. The synthesizers were so primitive that it was difficult to repeat sounds. When writing the film's conclusion, Coscarelli intentionally wanted to shock audiences and "send people out of the theater with a bang."
There were no accountants on the set, but Coscarelli estimates the budget at $300,000. Funding for the film came in part from Coscarelli's father, who was credited as the film's producer; additional funding came from doctors and lawyers. His mother designed some of the special effects, costumes, and make-up. The cast and crew were composed mainly of friends and aspiring professionals. Due to their inexperience, they did not realize that firing blanks could be dangerous; Coscarelli's jacket caught fire from a shotgun blank. Casting was based on previous films that Coscarelli directed, and he created roles for those actors. Because he could not afford to hire an editor or cameraman, Coscarelli did these duties himself.
Filming was done weekends and sometimes lasted for 20 hours over the course of more than a year. Reggie Bannister described the production as "flying by the seat of our pants." The actors would be called to perform their scenes and picked up as soon as they were available. Bannister did many of his own stunts. Though set in Oregon, shooting took place primarily in the San Fernando Valley in Chatsworth, California. The script changed often during production, and Bannister says that he never saw a completed copy of it; instead, they worked scene-by-scene and used improvisation. The script was characterized by Coscarelli as "barely linear". While it contained the basic concepts of the completed film, the script was unfocused and rewritten during filming. The spheres came from one of Coscarelli's nightmares, but the original idea did not involve drilling. Will Greene, an elderly metal-worker, fashioned the iconic spheres, but he never got to see the finished film, as he died before the film was released. The black 1971 Plymouth Barracuda was used because Coscarelli had known someone in high school who drove one; he realized that he could get his hands on one by using it in the film.
Post-production took another six to eight months. The first test screening was poorly received due to the film's length; Coscarelli says that he erred in adding too much character development, which needed to be edited out. Phantasm's fractured dream logic was due in part to the extensive editing. During shooting, they did not have a clear idea of the ending. Several endings were filmed, and one of them was re-used in Phantasm IV: Oblivion. Coscarelli attributed the freedom to choose from among these endings to his independent financing.
To solicit outside opinions, Coscarelli paid an audience to watch an early cut of the film. Although Coscarelli called the result "a disaster", he was encouraged by the audience's reactions to the film. The financial success of Halloween released the prior year convinced vice-president of marketing at AVCO Embassy Pictures, Robert Rehme, to purchase Phantasm for distribution. The original theatrical release was March 28th, 1979. It grossed $11,988,469 at the box office. MGM released Phantasm on laserdisc in November 1995 and on DVD in August 1998. Anchor Bay Entertainment re-released it on DVD on April 10, 2007.
In late 2015, Coscarelli showed a work-in-progress 4K resolution restoration of Phantasm (called Phantasm: Remastered) at the Butt-Numb-A-Thon film festival. It was supervised by Coscarelli at Bad Robot Productions. Bad Robot became involved when director J. J. Abrams, a fan of the series, requested a screening of the film. Coscarelli told him that he did not have a high quality print, but Abrams volunteered the use of his technicians for a restoration. The completed restoration premiered at SXSW in March 2016. Phantasm: Remastered was released in limited theaters on September 24, 2016, and was released on Blu-ray on December 6, 2016.
Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times deemed the film "a smooth and terrifically impressive technical achievement, a sort of jeu de spook with all manner of eerie and shocking special effects." In a mostly negative review, critic Roger Ebert described the film as "a labor of love, if not a terrifically skillful one." Trevor Johnston of Time Out called the film "a surprisingly shambolic affair whose moments of genuine invention stand out amid the prevailing incompetence." Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader described it as "spotty" and "effective here and there", though he praised Coscarelli's raw ability. Vincent Canby of The New York Times compared it to a ghost story told by a bright, imaginative 8-year-old; he concluded that it is "thoroughly silly and endearing". Variety gave it a positive review that highlighted the use of both horror and humor. Tim Pulleine (Monthly Film Bulletin) described the film as a "dilapidated z-movie" with "singularly unconvincing apparitions and contraptions" and that the film did not have "anything resembling a coherent plot in the course of all the fumblingly juvenile malarkey".
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Phantasm holds a 73% approval rating based on 45 critic reviews, with an average rating of 6.51/10. The consensus reads: "Phantasm: Remastered adds visual clarity to the first installment in one of horror's most enduring -- and endearingly idiosyncratic -- franchises.” Kim Newman of Empire called it "an incoherent but effective horror picture" that "deliberately makes no sense" and rates it four out of five stars. Scott Weinberg of Fearnet stated the acting is "indie-style raw" and special effects are sometimes poor, but the originality and boldness make up for it. Steve Barton of Dread Central rated it five out of five stars and said the film is a masterpiece and "one hell of a scary film". Bloody Disgusting rated the film four out of five stars and said the film is "truly original" and "imbues in its viewers is a profound sense of dread". Author John Kenneth Muir called the film striking, distinctive, and original. Muir stated that the film has become a classic, and the Tall Man is a horror film icon.
The film was rated #25 on the cable channel Bravo!'s list of The 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It also placed #75 in Time Out London's 100 best horror films. Drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs included it at #20 in his 25 Scariest DVDs Ever list. UGO placed the film (and the Tall Man) at #7 out of 11 in its Top Terrifying Supernatural Moments. Phantasm has become a cult film; Coscarelli attributes its cult following to nostalgia and its lack of answers, as repeated viewings can leave fans with different interpretations. USA Today described three characteristics that make it a cult film: "the touching portrayal of two brothers in danger, an iconic villain in The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and a floating metallic sphere that's a death-dealing weapon."
The name of Star Wars: The Force Awakens villain Captain Phasma was chosen as a reference to Phantasm. Director Abrams said, "Phasma I named because of the amazing chrome design that came from Michael Kaplan's wardrobe team. It reminded me of the ball in Phantasm, and I just thought, Phasma sounds really cool."
USA Today quoted Jovanka Vuckovic, editor in chief of Rue Morgue, as stating that Supernatural, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and One Dark Night (1983) were all influenced by Phantasm. Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man identifies the Tall Man as an influence on the internet-based character Slender Man.
Swedish Death Metal band Entombed performed a cover of the Phantasm theme in their 1990 song 'Left Hand Path'.
The 1997 computer game BLOOD paid homage to the film in the first level of the first episode (E1M1) titled Cradle to the Grave. This map takes place in the Morningside Mortuary.
In the 1998 sequel BLOOD II : The Chosen there is a weapon called The Orb that acts as the metal spheres by flying into the head of the enemy and drilling out their brain spraying blood everywhere.
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