The year 1979 was a great year in film. Classics such as Alien, The Amityville Horror, The Warriors, Apocalypse Now and Star Trek were all released that year. And yet, nothing was quite like Phantasm. One of the most creative, original and frightening horror movies ever created, Phantasm was released in theaters on March 28th of that year. Even now, 39 years later, this film still not only holds up, but remains haunting and unique.
“Beware the ball, beware the tall man, beware the never dead.”
There are a lot of things that make Phantasm such a beloved film, but it’s safe to say that the main reason is the story. Written by director Don Coscarelli while isolated in a cabin, there’s never been a story quite like Phantasm seen on film before. So let’s talk about this story. Here is the official IMDB synopsis:
Mike, a young teenage boy who has just lost his parents, afraid to lose his brother follows him to a funeral, where Mike witnesses the Tall Man lifting a coffin on his own. Mike decides to investigate, and discovers that the Tall Man, protected by his flying spheres, is shrinking dead bodies down to half their normal size and reanimating them as slaves. It is then up to Mike, his brother, and Reggie the ice cream man to stop the Tall man.
Ok. There’s a lot there, and yet, not even half of what goes on in this film. The story of Michael (played by A. Michael Baldwin) is really a very emotional one. Here is this young 13 year old boy having just lost his parents a few years earlier, and is now terrified that his older brother will also be leaving him to pursue bigger and better things. Following his big brother Jody (played by Bill Thornbury) around and helping him fix his gorgeous 1971 Plymouth Barracuda is his only real way of staying connected. But it’s due to his surveillance of Jody that he encounters the infamous Tall Man.
Coscarelli really nailed it with the Tall Man character. Here is a man, literally intimidating in stature and looks that becomes the main villain in the story. Casting Angus Scrimm was no accident. Having previously worked with Scrimm on another project, Coscarelli has said that he always knew that Scrimm would make a great horror villain. His experience in theater gave him a control over his mannerisms and facial expressions that would lend themselves greatly to creating this evil character of the Tall Man. Once Michael and the Tall Man became aware of each other they would entwine themselves in each other’s lives. Haunted by visions and dreams of the Tall Man, Michael sets off to find out more about what is going on at Morningside Cemetery.
From the outside, the Morningside mausoleum looks like a large beautiful, classic old American house. But on the inside the halls are floor to ceiling marble with dark, rich red curtains, chandeliers and marble busts. The atmosphere is futuristic and otherworldly, not quite matching the exterior. This atmosphere lends itself to the weird things that Michael witnesses inside. The most infamous of these events is of course the flying metal ball. While trying to escape one of the Tall Man‘s henchman, Michael witnesses a flying silver sphere bury itself into the man’s head and proceed to drill into the man’s skull. Nightmare fuel for any young child for sure.
Once Michael is able to convince his brother Jody (due to a rogue captured finger) that something is indeed going on, they rope in Jody‘s friend Reggie to continue the investigation. Things elevate quickly and the trio are introduced to Jawa-like minions that they soon discover to be squished down versions of their deceased friends and loved ones. We’re going to keep this a spoiler free zone here for the rest, but needless to say, things only continue to get stranger from here on out.
The real beauty to the story of Phantasm is that even though it’s so strange, so weird, it’s also so heartfelt..
The real beauty to the story of Phantasm is that even though it’s so strange, so weird, it’s also so heartfelt. The relationship between Michael and Jody is one that is loving and comes across as genuine. The actors do a great job of making the audience feel that bond of family, affection, love and loss. Also, let’s talk about Reggie. He’s a pony-tail wearing man in his late 20’s who drives around selling ice cream to children and yet, he never comes across creepy or icky. His friendship with both Jody and Michael always seems totally sincere and innocent. That speaks volumes to the the actor Reggie Bannister’s abilities and Coscarelli’s writing.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this film is Don Coscarelli’s film. Not only did Coscarelli direct the film, he was the writer, the cinematographer and the film’s editor. This was the third film for Coscarelli, and his very first horror film. Not too bad for a 25-year-old. Using initial funding provided by his dad, Coscarelli was able to produce a decent enough rough cut to impress at least one studio executive. This gave him the rest of the financial backing needed and he was able to finish the film for somewhere around $300,000.
Another layer that adds to the quality of Phantasm is the score. Fred Myrow was chosen to score the film as he had previously worked with Coscarelli on his first two films. Myrow brought in fellow collaborator Malcolm Seagrave and the two set to work. They were given a rough cut of the film and Coscarelli requested something similar to Vangelis or Pink Floyd. Within two weeks a finished score was completed. Reminiscent of Goblin, Halloween or an Italian giallo score, the music to Phantasm truly encapsulates the fantastical, bizarre world created in the film. The 9-note theme is so haunting, simple and foreboding. It instantly transports you to Morningside Cemetery and helps define the film in a beautiful way. Mondo reissued the soundtrack on vinyl back in 2015 and if you can find a copy, you should definitely pick one up.
The world that Coscarelli created in Phantasm is one that has never quite been replicated. Even though the plot is so weird and strange, it succeeds on every level. It’s no wonder why this film has become so iconic in the world of horror. It also makes complete sense that it would go on to spawn four sequels. The mysteries of the Tall Man are not easily explained and his realm is one that is both intriguing and terrifying. Another infamous tagline from the film sums it all up pretty well; “If you’re looking for horror that’s got balls…IT’S FOUND YOU.”