Jarvisrama99: Horror franchises often tend to follow a similar trend: after a few installments, the rest of the series instead focuses on the killer. Often times a main character will return in a later sequel, but usually the other films introduces new characters to either be killed or take on the series’ antagonist.
However, some series have made exceptions to this. Evil Dead’s Ash has been the star since the 1981 film’s release, and has appeared in every sequel, a television follow-up, even appearing in the remake in a small cameo. What’s interesting was there was another series that not only kept the main character, it also kept some supporting characters as well. That series was Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm.
Phantasm is a very unique movie, as well as many of its ideas Coscarelli created. The story is that following a screening of his comedy Kenny and Company in 1976, Don took notice of how the audience was effectively scared by the jump scares used during one sequence in the movie. Seeing the possibility of doing his next feature as a horror movie, as well as hearing horror movies were more financially successful, Coscarelli made the decision to make his next film a horror movie.
Inspired by the works of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and films such as 1953’s Invaders from Mars and 1977’s Suspiria, Coscarelli also created one of the film’s iconic trademarks. He claims as a he had a nightmare of being chased in a hallway of endlessly long marble corridors by a chrome sphere intent on penetrating his skull with a needle, and stuck with him so much he put it into his script.
On a budget of $300,000 and using actor’s he had worked with on his previous two films, Coscarelli shot the film mostly on weekends, which apparently went over the course of more than a year, with the footage apparently estimated to be over 20 hours. After post-production lasted between 6 to 8 months and a very rough screening that didn’t go well, Coscarelli recut the film (much of the unused footage ended up in Phantasm IV: Oblivion), and the film rights were picked up by AVCO Embassy Pictures, who had major success the previous year with John Carpenter’s Halloween. Phantasm was released in March of 1979, and despite mixed reviews, did gross $12 million.
Over time, the film received much more positive feedback, and went on to inspire characters in different films and mediums (more on that in a bit). So exactly what makes Phantasm, well, fantastic?
Creature: That is indeed quite the question. Phantasm is indeed a unique movie and has definitely stood out amongst the horror movies of the time. So, one would obviously wonder why this is so great. We’ll have to dive right in and take a look at this horror classic.
Jarvisrama99: In a small Oregon town, Jody Pearson is now taking care of his younger brother Mike following the deaths of their parents. However, unbeknownst to Jody, Mike begins to notice odd events are happening around town. Following the death of one of Jody’s friends, Mike begins to suspect that the murders are being caused by the local mortician, whom he refers to as the Tall Man. As Mike witnesses more and more bizarre occurrences, from hooded dwarfs hiding around the mausoleum to witnessing a man killed by a flying sphere, Jody and his close friend Reggie begin to believe in his story. As more and more of the townsfolk begin to vanish, the three set out to defeat the Tall Man before his sinister intentions go beyond the town…
The main characters Jody and Mike are great protagonists. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbur really sell the idea that Mike and Jody are actual brothers. You buy how Mike wants to stay with Jody since their folks are gone, yet you also side with Jody since he doesn’t know how to take care of his little brother and is considering taking off leaving him alone. What also is great is when you see the two helping one another as their taking on the Tall Man.
You know who’s also great? Reggie, played by Reggie Bannister. Reggie is somewhat like Ash from the Evil Dead series, even to a point he became the main character in later films. However, whereas Ash became the badass that we all know from Evil Dead 2, Reggie from the get-go shows he’s awesome, all while not only coming off as the straight man, but also the comic-relief. I got nothing else to say, Reggie’s awesome.
Creature: The two of them are pretty great characters. The two of them are very relatable and you really do understand where their emotions are coming from over the course of the film. Not to mention, as you said, Michael & Bill give great and convincing performances. Plus, Reggie was a fun character in the film as well.
Jarvisrama99: One of the biggest reasons for why the film works is its villain, played wonderfully by the late Angus Scrimm. The unnerving thing about him is he’s always got this chilling stare on his face. He’s constantly giving you this uncomfortable feeling, so much so when he’s seen delighting in his sinister actions do you get more unnerved by this change in emotion. Heck, even when he’s informing Jody the funeral is going to start, he goes out of his way to make it freaky, and it’s great.
The Tall Man is a unique villain in the fact he can’t be stopped. Now while this doesn’t sound like a problem, especially where other horror franchises have their main killers come back time and time again, I mean that this guy can’t be stopped because he comes back a few minutes later unharmed. He loses his fingers at one point, and a few minutes later his hand is perfectly fine.
What also works is unlike Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and to some extent Freddy Krueger, his plan is much larger and more terrifying than just killing some teenagers. The Tall Man is pretty much after everyone, and even succeeds in a lot of places killing people whom just so happen to be living in the town minding their own business. In fact, the disturbing realization that many of the dwarfs working for him are reanimated corpses shrunken down is haunting, especially when the realization comes he’s been grave robbing the entire cemetery.
The Tall Man is also unique in the fact that his main weapon is something that does the killing on its own: the Sentinel spheres. What a very plain yet very clever design. I love how both ridiculous and deadly these things are when they come flying down hallways towards the camera. What makes them work is when they finally do get around killing people, and it’s terrifying. As soon as you think it can’t get any worse, the camera proceeds to keep filming as this graphic scene goes on and on. There’s a reason why they’re one of the memorable parts of the series.
Creature: The Tall Man is definitely a very unique horror movie character. Angus Scrimm gave off an ominous presence when you just look at him like you know that there is something off about him. When he does talk, he’s often very menacing and does get quite the delight from his actions in the series. It really was quite the terrifying performance and definitely is one of the most memorable icons in Horror. Not to mention those flying spheres of his are quite deadly. While they look rather odd, they can pack quite a punch and could kill anyone very easily.
Jarvisrama99: Remember how I said the film went on to inspire other characters and films? Well, one of Phantasm’s biggest fans is J.J. Abrams, who not had his company Bad Robot restore Coscarelli’s film in 2016 to be remastered for Blu-Ray, but named Captain Phasma in The Force Awakens off the film’s title due to her chrome armor being similar to the spheres seen in the movie.
Creature: I never actually thought about that until you mentioned it. Sounds like a nice little nod to the movie.
Jarvisrama99: The Tall Man may seem familiar to certain viewers, and there might be a strong reason for that. Eric Knudsen, while not being a familiar name, cites the Tall Man as one of the biggest influences when he created Slender Man back in 2009. At certain points in the movie, you can see how his appearance did inspire Knudsen’s character 30 years later.
Creature: The influence of the Tall Man in Slenderman is quite easy to see. The tall, thin body and the ominous presence do help make both of them terrifying in their own way (except I don’t expect Slenderman to have the flying spheres though).
Jarvisrama99: You know what’s interesting? A Nightmare on Elm Street, which also played on many ideas of a killer stalking you in your dreams, has its ending very similar to Phantasm. It’s a last minute scare that leaves the audience jumping one last time. Yet while the original did its own take on that idea, the remake used nearly the same exact sequence.
Speaking of a Nightmare on Elm Street, Phantasm also plays up on the idea of the Tall Man stalking the main characters in their dreams. Phantasm tends to play up on whether they’re asleep or not more ominous, whereas Nightmare makes it clearer when the dream world is interacting with the normal world. What also helps is whereas Freddy waits for you to fall asleep, the Tall Man is waiting on both sides to get you, either awake or asleep, and he’s just constantly hanging around and won’t go away.
Creature: The two films do share a lot of the same ideas in terms of their respected villains which do help improve their respected films to make them all the more terrifying. Though while Elm Street is more obvious in its dream state, Phantasm, as mentioned, was more ominous with its state of reality in which the Tall Man is a constant threat regardless of the realm that the film shows us.
Jarvisrama99: Despite how much I really enjoy Phantasm, I do admit it does have some flaws. The twist delivered in the final act kind of comes out of nowhere, especially when the buildup prior didn’t hint at the reveal being anywhere possible. I do feel the film just has scenes happen. I get the movie is meant to feel like a dream, however it does tend to have an uneven feel to it as various points.
I think one of the funniest aspects to do is watch the movie and spot how many times Scrimm’s hair keeps changing in length and appearance. I understand the film was made on and off over a year, but it’s amusing to see how his hair changes at different times in the film.
Creature: The film does have some of those problems for me as well. The twist at the end of the film really did come out of nowhere and some of the scenes are there just to be in the film for no real reason. Despite this though, I didn’t really find else to be bothered by it either.
Jarvisrama99: Despite these issues I have with the film, that’s forgivable seeing how much the film was clearly made with love and the cast clearly having a fun time. Phantasm is a blast from start to finish. While dragging at certain spots, that’s completely forgivable from likable main characters, a very imposing villain, a mystery that draws you in, and some pretty simple yet effective makeup and special effects sequences. If you haven’t seen Phantasm and are a fan of 70’s/80’s horror movies, I feel you’d like this movie just as much so.
Creature: It is a fun horror film. Whether it be from Angus Scrimm, the special effects, likable characters, or the strange nature of the film, Phantasm provides quite the enjoyable film experience amongst most of the other horror movies at the time. The film has plenty of things going for it that really do make it worth finding and watching.