Phantasm (1979)


(director/writer: Don Coscarelli; Don Coscarelli; cinematographer: Don Coscarelli; editor: Don Coscarelli; music: Fred Myrow/Malcolm Seagrave; cast: Michael Baldwin (Mike Pearson), Bill Thornbury (Jody Pearson), Reggie Bannister (Reggie), Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man), Kathy Lester (Lady in Lavender), Bill Cone (Tommy), Terrie Kalbus (Fortuneteller’s Granddaughter), Susan Harper (Girlfriend), Lynn Eastman (Sally), Ken Jones (Caretaker), Mary Ellen Shaw (Fortuneteller); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Don Coscarelli; Anchor Bay; 1979)
“Passable in spots, it offers dumb fun and turns out to be one of the best films that Coscarelli ever made”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A schlocky bizarre Ed Wood type of bad film in the horror/splatter genre mode that became a sleeper hit. It’s created by 21-year-old filmmaker Don Coscarelli (“The Beastmaster”/”Bubba Ho-Tep”/”Survival Quest”), who makes up for his ineptitude as a filmmaker (he did just about everything in this film, but could never create suspense or completely hold my attention) with some creative scary visuals and lots of spooky atmosphere (shot in Oregon) and lots of giddy moments over the macabre. Passable in spots, it offers dumb fun and turns out to be one of the best films that Coscarelli ever made–reaching popularity as a cult classic and influencing other low-budget cheesy shockers to follow suit (also spawning three other inferior sequels). Since the acting was stilted, the storyline silly and the production values limited, Coscarelli had to use his ingenuity to come up with a professionally made quality film and received help from some talented craftsmen such as special effects designer Paul Pepperman and production designer S. Tyler.

Likable teenager Mike Pearson (Michael Baldwin) has bad dreams about death since he recently lost his parents and is now cared for by his protective cool 24-year-old brother Jody (Bill Thornbury). Mike upon his night visits to Morningside Mortuary sees strange things flying around and declares to his skeptical brother that “something weird is going on up there.” One night his cousin Tommy (Bill Cone) is making out with his date on the grounds of the Morningside Mortuary (the spooky Victorian place was used before in “Burnt Offerings”), but never returns as he’s killed by the Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester). Mike is suspicious and when he returns to investigate he’s confronted inside the mortuary by the creepy, gaunt, and hostile attendant known as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). In the film’s most gruesomely memorable scene, a little flying silver ball, with spikes that jut out, implant themselves after flying through the air into the forehead of the ground’s caretaker. What follows is that a drill burrows into the man’s skull to suck out the brains, grotesquely emitting a steady stream of blood (it speaks volumes for the viewer who takes such delight in this innovative way to act beastly, more than it does for how talented is the filmmaker).

Later Mike discovers that the Tall Man drips yellow embalming fluid instead of blood and that his severed finger changes into an attacking bug. Also, the Tall Man’s henchmen are attacking killer cowled dwarfs (think Jawas in Star Wars!). The mystery begins to get resolved when Mike catches on that the Tall Man is a supernatural grave-robber who is reviving dead bodies and crushing them in half to ship them to another planet or dimension for slave labor.

The spirited, weird and silly film offers many nasty moments of fright, that has a ready-made audience who find such artistically well-done splatter funny. There is no other purpose than to be entertaining both as a horror and comedy film, and should work with the right viewer–I’m just not the right viewer, as I find such tasteless humor just that.


REVIEWED ON 10/17/2008 GRADE: C+