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).
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Tommy (Bill Cone) and the Lady In Lavender (Kathy Lester) have sex in Morningside Cemetery, after which the woman kills Tommy with a knife. Later, Tommy's friends, including 24-year-old musician Jody Pearson and family man Reggie, attend Tommy's funeral at Morningside, believing he committed suicide. Jody explains that he didn't bring his 13-year-old brother, Mike, because their parents died recently and he felt Mike would be traumatised by another funeral. However, Mike has been secretly observing the funeral from the bushes; after the mourners leave, Mike witnesses a tall man in a suit who seems to be the Morningside mortician lift Tommy's 500-pound casket with superhuman strength and load it into his hearse instead of completing the burial. He also seems to telekinetically knock Mike off his motorbike as he flees the cemetery.
Mike relays this story to a fortune teller (Mary Ellen Shaw) and her granddaughter (Terrie Kalbus), as well as his fears about the possibility of Jody departing and leaving him in the care of his aunt. Through her granddaughter, the fortune teller tells Mike not to worry about Jody, assuring him that Jody would take Mike along if he chose to leave town. Then, she seems to magically produce a small black box and instructs Mike to put his hand into it. After the box grips his hand, Mike is told not to be afraid, and as the panic subsides, the box relaxes its grip. After Mike leaves, the fortune teller's granddaughter investigates the Morningside mausoleum, where she finds a strange room filled with white light. She screams at what she sees, and is presumably killed. Later, the Lady in Lavender seduces Jody in a bar and takes him to Morningside Cemetery to have sex. Mike, who has taken to secretly following Jody in the wake of their parents' deaths, has an aggressive encounter with a short, hooded figure while spying on his brother. He runs screaming from the bushes, interrupting Jody mid-coitus. When Jody catches up to him, Mike frantically tries to tell him about the hooded figure, but Jody dismisses the story.
After another violent encounter with more hooded figures and seeing the Tall Man walk down the street and react strangely to cold air coming out of Reggie's ice cream truck, Mike resolves to investigate Morningside and obtain proof of his suspicions to show to Jody. While exploring the mausoleum, a silver sphere flies through the air, narrowly missing Mike as he dives under it. He is accosted by a Morningside caretaker, but Mike escapes just as the sphere is making another pass; it impales itself in the caretaker's skull and drills into his brain, killing him. The Tall Man approaches Mike, but he escapes by exercising control over his fear, surprising the Tall Man and trapping his hand in a heavy door. Mike cuts the fingers off of the hand, causing the Tall Man to bellow an alien roar while yellow blood gushes from the wound. Mike takes one of the Tall Man's still-moving fingers and escapes the mausoleum, narrowly avoiding capture by the hooded figures.
The finger is enough for Jody to believe Mike's stories about Morningside. Meanwhile, the finger transforms into a vicious, oversized fly-like insect that attacks Mike. Reggie coincidentally witnesses this, and joins the brothers in their suspicions about Morningside. Jody decides to go on his own investigation alone. He is chased away from Morningside by a seemingly driverless hearse, but is rescued by Mike in Jody's Plymouth Barracuda. The two run the hearse off the road and discover it was driven by one of the hooded figures, whom they discover to be a re-animated Tommy. Tommy's body has been unnaturally shortened, although he weighs significantly more than average. Reggie and Jody resolve to defeat the Tall Man. Mike is taken to an antique store owned by Jody's friend Sally (Lynn Eastman). There, Mike discovers an antique photograph of the Tall Man. Mike begs Sally to take him home; on the way they see Reggie's ice cream truck overturned. Mike finds a handprint melted into a block of ice with the same yellow blood that came out of the Tall Man. Mike tries to get Sally and her friend to leave the scene quickly, but all three are attacked by a mob of hooded dwarves. Mike survives by being thrown out of the back window, while the girls drive off into the night, screaming. Mike assumes they and Reggie are all dead.
Jody locks Mike in his room to keep him safe, then goes to Morningside to execute his plan to kill the Tall Man. Mike escapes his bedroom and tries to leave to help Jody, but the Tall Man is waiting for him outside his front door. He kidnaps Mike in a hearse, but Mike thwarts him by shooting out the back window and a rear tire, causing the hearse to strike a pole and explode. While looking for Jody in Morningside, Mike opens his father's casket and sees that it is empty, prompting him to scream and attract the attention of the silver sphere. Jody destroys it with a shotgun. Suddenly, Reggie appears and explains that he rescued Sally and several other girls. The three then open the mysterious door the fortune teller's daughter opened earlier. Inside, they find oil drum-like canisters with more dwarfed re-animated corpses inside them. Mike accidentally falls through a portal and catches a brief glimpse of a red, hot planet where the dwarves are toiling as slaves. He is quickly snatched back to Earth by Jody, after which he deduces that the Tall Man must come from the red planet and that the corpses are shortened so they can withstand the increased gravity and temperatures.
The trio is suddenly split up by a power outage. Reggie remains in the dwarf storage room alone, and places his hands on the portal, mirroring an earlier scene when he stopped a tuning fork from vibrating. This causes the portal to become a powerful vacuum that Reggie narrowly escapes. It also stuns the Lady in Lavender, revealed to be a shape-shifted Tall Man, and saves Jody from being stabbed. However, in the chaos, Reggie stumbles upon the Lady in Lavender's body, and she kills him. Jody and Mike flee, and the mausoleum vanishes. The brothers devise a plan to lure the Tall Man into a local deserted mine shaft and trap him inside. Mike once again controls his fear and succeeds in the plan, after which he suddenly wakes up in his bed. Reggie, still alive, tells Mike that much of what he experienced was a nightmare, which has been happening frequently since Jody died in a car crash. Mike appears to remember this and believe it. Reggie tells Mike that he will take care of him as Jody did, and that they should go on a road trip together. When Mike enters his bedroom to pack, he is shocked to see the Tall Man is waiting for him. Hands crash through the glass of his bedroom mirror, pulling Mike into a dark void.
- 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:
- After the deaths of his parents, Mike tries to convince his brother and Reggie that a local mortician called the Tall Man is responsible for their deaths. 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.
The cast includes Bill Cone as Tommy, Mary Ellen Shaw as the fortune-teller, and Terrie Kalbus as the fortune-teller's granddaughter.
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".
Some critics have posted retrospective reviews. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the remastered version holds an approval rating of 73%, based on 45 reviews, and an average rating of 6.51/10. It's 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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