Phantasm (1979) — Kicking off a bizarre horror franchise

“OK, I see it all now. We gotta stomp the s**t outta that tall dude!”

Kyle’s rating: Flying metal orbs with knives and blood-draining capabilities . . . what would Freud say?

Kyle’s review: For the most part, if you’re seeing a movie made since the 1980s, you can pretty much ignore the fashion and lingo influence factor. However, a lot of stuff from the ’70s, at least the stuff I’ve seen, is so hopefully inundated by the Age of Aquarius and whatnot that you can’t sit there and just watch the movie unless you’ve flipped your “Hey, this was made a long time ago when things were really different and I must deal with that” switch in your head prior to viewing.

Phantasm is such a film. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, far from it. There’s a lot to enjoy, you just have to accept the long flowing locks on the dudes and a general sense of acid-wash coating everything. Ah, acid-wash.

This is the (convoluted and chronologically-challenged) story about a young dude, Mike (Michael Baldwin), who just lost his parents and now all he has left is his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and family friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Or does he? The local funeral director that oversaw his parents getting buried, a very tall old man (Angus Scrimm), only has the best intentions for those corpses and certainly won’t be digging them back out of the ground for nefarious purposes. Or will he?

After the movie is over, you’ll turn off the television and go to bed with a feeling of safety, certain that your locked front door will keep out any flying balls or killer dwarves that might be attacking your house. Or will it? Will you? What was the question? What tense am I writing in? Who am I? Gridlock! Gridlock!

Look, I tend to be the one who hits the bulk of the vast horror library here, and I’m always explaining that if you pay close attention to these movies most of the confusing plot threads will be tied up in the end. I can’t say that about Phantasm. I’m sure that the creators know what’s going on and where everything is going, but I happen to think the dude stapling the shooting script back in the day borrowing a few papers for rolling purposes, if you know what I’m saying, because there is a fragmented and dreamlike quality to these cinematic proceeding. They “claim” that this was purposeful and they wanted the film to be wacky and wild. Hmmm, I wonder. No way to tell now, though.

This review is pretty fragmented itself, actually. I’m writing it in abnormal psychology class instead of paying attention, and that seems to fit for Phantasm. Anyway, Phantasm is the crazy film your freaky friend and/or older “of age in the ’70s” brother told you about, with crazy dwarves, weird images, an evil tall man chasing a young boy and screaming “Boy!” and has floating silver orbs that follow people and hit them in the head with Wolverine-like claws that pop out. I want a Phantasm ball! Imagine the merchandising possibilities!

Until that happens, and I know you all want one too, we must settle for having this great first film which ultimately makes no sense and is more like watching someone else’s dream that somehow imprinted onto celluloid, but it’s cool! And kinda bloody. It’s a scene, man, dig? So watch it and watch out! Solid!

Justin’s rating: I’m going to headline my own series as The Short Man. Actually, that does sound kind of creepy, doesn’t it?

Justin’s review: I’ve healed up enough from my last movie marathon series to be in the mood for another go at an entire franchise. And since the Phantasm series has been looming over my shoulder for a while now, why not give it a go? All I know is that it’s a cult series with some scifi elements mixed with its horror, which intrigues me. Otherwise, I’m going into this series completely blind.

Strange things are afoot in Morningside cemetery. People are lured into it by a mysterious lady who, right before she kills them, transforms into a freaky undertaker. Said Tall Man (Angus Scrimm, who has the best bad guy name ever) also creeps around the mausoleum, single-handedly slings caskets into cars, and can regenerate fingers when sliced off. There are also smaller hooded figures that run about the place either cosplaying Jawas or causing mischief.

Reluctantly investigating this cemetery is the brother pairing of Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), both of whom lost their parents two years prior to the film’s events. Jody is Mike’s reluctant guardian, while Mike is Jody’s enthusiastic pain in the rear. He’s an odd kid, openly stalking his older brother and visiting a terribly creepy psychic grandmother for advice, but I suppose we all deal with grief in different ways.

Once the two start to realize that not all is quite right at the ol’ bone factory, they investigate just what is up with this Tall Man, his floating death spheres, and Snow White’s escaped dwarves. Along the way, they gain an unlikely ally in the form of Reggie, the ice cream man who’s got a musical talent that may save the day.

Jody, Reggie, and Mike are so dedicated to Not Leaving Well Enough Alone that you suspect they can hear the audience screaming, “Don’t go in there!” only for the two to respond, “Oh yeah? You can tell us what to do! You’re not our dead backstory parents!”

Phantasm may be one of the rare instances of a horror franchise with an iconic villain that isn’t a slasher. Sure, there are some deaths here, but this whole production is more like a dreamlike ghost story with a scifi bent. And I wasn’t let down by the otherworldliness that is in this flick. There are places, rules, and figures that aren’t fully explained — because they’re not from earth itself. It’s a movie where you really don’t want to go to the light or attract the attention of flying death balls that’ll do an emergency evac of your entire circulatory system.

And what we find out — that the Tall Man is a being from another dimension who’s stealing our corpses to make into his half-sized slaves — only raises more questions. Like, a lot of questions that may need four sequels to answer.

The tone of Phantasm is what struck me the most, however. If you ever want a movie that shows, not tells, this is it. Clearly, a lot of effort went into capturing the miasma of a nightmare that feels so, so real while being so, so illogical. It’s so eerie and alien that I can’t help but think that, yeah, I’d be investigating that cemetery myself just to get some answers.

Don’t go in there? You can’t tell me what to do.

Didja notice?

  • People really like canoodling in cemeteries for some reason. Oh, I guess it’s for the murder.
  • Creepy sounds while you’re alone in a mausoleum? Yeah, best stick around and investigate!
  • Solo man-handling a huge casket is boss!
  • Could we get MORE candles in grandmother’s room there? There are two inches on the dresser that aren’t on fire yet.
  • “Put your hand in the black box.” oooookay
  • That kid is crazy-stalking his older brother
  • That poster-worthy image of Mike waking up to see the Tall Man over his bed with his arms stretched out
  • All of the Dune references. After all, fear is the mind-killer!
  • Does the Tall Man have mustard for blood?
  • Hee… my pet finger
  • Fingers can morph into little monsters
  • “No warning shots… shoot to kill, or don’t shoot at all.”
  • That’s an awkward way to fire a gun over your head behind you
  • Hey, it’s a Hogwarts photograph that moves!
  • Car door rattling on a dark and scary night? Better open it!
  • Exploding hammer is a cool invention
  • The white room: part storage, part interdimensional portal, part faulty wiring
  • “BOY”
  • Wait, why is Reggie now taking care of Mike?

One comment

  1. MST3K Alert: Angus Scrimm appeared in the Season 13 flick Munchie as a funeral director. #EverythingConnects2MST3K

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