Grab your Dwarves and lock arms with the Lady in Lavender, Phantasm turns 40 and there’s a party at Morningside!
The indie cult-classic, Phantasm (1979), debuted 40 years ago today on March 28th, 1979 from the twisted mind of director Don Coscarelli. This now beloved horror classic centers around Jody, Mike and Reggie as they take on the imposing Tall Man and his funeral home of horrors to deliver a film that is out of this world. Literally.
Phantasm‘s long-lasting success can be credited to many elements from the genre-defying flick. From it’s atmospheric 70’s synth score to the schlocky special effects typical of many of the popular horror offering during that era. Throw in some evil dwarves, a flying ball of death and a 1971 Plymouth ‘Cuda and well….the rest is history. It’s a nightmare filled surreal masterpiece. There’s already a great retrospective of the film from last year here at Nightmare on Film Street, so no need to reinvent the wheel, but on this 40th anniversary here’s some information that maybe you might not have heard before.
Something so simple as a flying bladed ball has managed to imbed itself in the collective consciousness and has become one of the most iconic images in horror. The fast and menacing ball was remarkably guided around by nothing more than fishing line! Often it was thrown from just off-screen, from an actual baseball pitcher, and the shot was then printed in reverse. And that is not the only use of the reversal technique. The caretakers death scene was done by attaching it to his forehead and then pulling it off and reversing said footage.
Created by Willard Green for a paltry $1,100 that infamous “sphere sequence” would go on to rank number 25 on Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments. Unfortunately Willard died just after production on the film had wrapped so he was never able to see how his work would terrify audiences for years.
Inspiring And Inspired
If you’re really paying attention there are a couple of references that nod to other horror and genre films. The biggest however being the Dune references. Borrowing from the Frank Herbert novel, Mike has to place his hand in a mysterious black box that seemingly causes him a great deal of pain. But when he removes his hand….no injury. He is also told not to fear, paying tribute to the famous line “Fear is the mind killer” from the same book. The bar that is seen on-screen several times is also called Dune.
Phantasm has influenced others and has appeared in a host of other films and television shows. Either in the way of references and homages or just small cameo appearances. In the film In the Mouth of Madness (1994) the poster for the fictional book “The Hobb’s End Horror” has a tagline of “If this book doesn’t scare you to death, you are already dead“. This is taken almost verbatim from Phantasm‘s own “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead”.
There is a cinematic nod to the effects shots of the sphere in Spider-Man 2 (2004) involving Doctor Octopus’ bionic appendages. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) director J.J. Abrams was such a fan of Coscarelli’s film that he named his chrome-plated Stormtrooper Captain Phasma after it. Not to mention that his production company, Bad Robot, are the ones responsible for the pristine 4K restoration that came out a few years back.
The Phantasm legacy has stretched now for four decades and although the concept has evolved beyond Don’s original imagining it has also managed to stay true to its roots. It’s etherealness and dreamlike qualities come from the fact that the premise of the story came to Don Coscarelli in a dream. It is that timelessness that has allowed it to endure and live on and since 1979 the franchise has spawned a whopping four sequels!
Originally, the film’s running time clocked in at over three hours and needed to be drastically cut but portions of this unused footage were used to a large degree twenty years later in Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998). Its managed to retain all of its central actors throughout all five films, with the only exception being Phantasm II (1988), which is no small feat. A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister and Bill Thornbury saw the franchise through to the bloody end as did Angus Scrimm who played The Tall Man in his final appearance before passing away in 2016, 10 months before the film would be released.
The cult following that the original Phantasm created has propelled director Don Coscarelli from obscurity to genre icon. Outside the Phantasm series he is also responsible for The Beastmaster (1982), Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) and John Dies at the End (2012) and even a memoir released just last year called True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking.
Born in Tripoli, Libya but raised in southern California, Don became the youngest director to have a feature film distributed by a major studio at the age of 19. After coming up with the original idea for the story, Don spent a few weeks in total isolation in a cabin in the mountains for additional inspiration. And here’s a real random one: his daughter, Chloe Coscarelli, is an award-winning vegan chef who started her own chain of all-vegan fast food restaurants.
“Beautiful, fast, scary and vintage […] It’s hard to imagine the genre without this gruesome gem and I shudder at the thought of what it would be in its absence.”
Phantasm is a film experience much like a ride in its now trademark ’71 Cuda. Beautiful, fast, scary and vintage. With rampaging dwarves, extra-dimensional doorways and thick yellow blood it bucks all expectations and delivers something truly unique. It’s hard to imagine the genre without this gruesome gem and I shudder at the thought of what it would be in its absence. And speaking of Shudder, the film along with its multiple sequels, can all be streamed over there right now!