Thoughts on… Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm, 1979.

Directed by Don Coscarelli.
Starring Bill Thornbury, A. Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister.


A young boy suspects a local mortician as the cause of recent mysterious disappearances.

As American horror cinema was on the cusp of becoming flooded with recycled slasher films, thanks largely to the success of Halloween (1978), this movie stands out as an inspired piece of filmmaking. Absolutely bonkers in execution, Phantasm attempts to juggle a few too many ideas but leaves itself open to interpretation. The plot may be lacking in cohesion, but there is a surreal nightmare quality to this film that ensures it lingers long in the memory.

The messy nature of the plot is the result of an initial runtime that clocked in at over three hours. Writer and director Don Coscarelli managed to wrestle the film down to less than ninety minutes, removing multiple subplots in the process, but several strands of ideas remain. What we’re left with is a film that plays out in the same way as a dream or nightmare, with no place for sense or logic. The bizarre atmosphere of the film is likely to polarise audiences, but there’s plenty of fun to be had if it isn’t taken too seriously.

The plot, from what I can gather, focuses on two brothers – Jody (Bill Thornbury), aged twenty-four, and Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), aged thirteen. Jody is reluctantly left raising Mike after the death of their parents, whilst Mike is struggling to deal with abandonment issues and refuses to be separated from his older brother. When it seems that the local mortician, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), is up to no good, the two brothers are forced to band together to try and solve some strange disappearances. Ice cream vendor and friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) also pitches in to help. At this point I could attempt to try and explain the Tall Man’s motives, which includes some dwarves that bear a striking resemblance to the Jawas in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), but it’s better to just experience the insanity of the plot for yourself.

Phantasm contains a refreshingly ambiguous narrative which opens itself to multiple readings. The performances are all fairly average, with the exception of Angus Scrimm who is magnificently imposing. Gore is used sparingly but inventively, and the score is quite remarkable. Phantasm is a film that has secured something of a cult following over the years, and it’s easy to see why. There’s plenty about this film to dislike, but plenty more to cherish and relish if you allow the madness to drill into your brain.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★

Liam Underwood

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