Phantasm (1978, dir. Don Coscarelli)
Something is going on at the old cemetery in town, and young Mike is determined to find out exactly what. His brother Jody thinks Mike just imagines things as part of his grief over their parents’ death, but when Jody sees the evil firsthand. A tall menacing stranger stalks the grounds, sinister dwarves attack anyone seeking out the truth, and a chrome sphere makes quick work of trespassers. Phantasm paints a surreal, dreamlike tableau of horror that stands as a singular achievement in horror.
Watching Phantasm reminded me of my childhood, flipping through the channels on a chilly October Saturday afternoon. Certain images just feed the primal fears of a kid, and this film is chock full of them. When it comes to a logical story that makes sense, though, it falls apart. I was reminded of Beyond the Black Rainbow, a very stylish horror film from 2010. Director Yorgos Lanthimos spoke interviews about the working to infuse the film with an intense dream logic that focused more on playing with nightmarish imagery rather than a fully realized plot. Phantasm is one of the films Lanthimos will mention when he talks about those late night childhood experiences.
As a whole, Phantasm has a lot of flaws and doesn’t deliver on the promise of the horror it builds up. However, there are a nice handful of moments that show off some real cleverness and creativity. The chrome orbs are probably one of the most original concepts I’ve seen in a horror film. Their design and the utterly brutal way they dispatch unwanted visitors was genuinely shocking for me. The Tall Man as an antagonist is not like the slasher figure that was garnering so much popularity around the same time. When Mike discovers the gateway to the other world, we’re presented with a very striking and hellish image of another planet/dimension.
The acting is incredibly stiff, but I suppose some might chalk that up as part of the charm. I think there is a fascinating seed of an idea in the film, a real chance to tell a great horror story, but the execution just never pays off. The standout character, in my opinion, was Reggie, the shotgun wielding ice cream man, such a uniquely original character for this genre of film. He seems to have the most acting talent in the crew and every scene he is in ends up being very enjoyable.
I have plans to watch the second film in the series, but beyond that, I don’t have much interest. Despite its flaws, Phantasm is a genuinely original entry into the horror film genre. It doesn’t feel like anything that came before it, and there is nothing in horror today that seems quite so interesting to look at and as surprising in its ideas.