Also known as: Morningside (working title), Zombies (Pakistan), The Never Dead (Australia)
Release Date: January, 1979 (Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival – France)
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Written by: Don Coscarelli
Music by: Fred Myrow, Malcolm Seagrave
Cast: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Angus Scrimm
New Breed Productions, AVCO Embassy Pictures, 89 Minutes
“You play a good game, boy, but the game is finished. Now you die.” – The Tall Man
I watched a lot of horror movies as a kid. I saw a lot of scary shit that I probably shouldn’t have for my age demographic in the ’80s. But I was pretty desensitized to it all at a young age and most horror films didn’t scare me, they just amused and entertained me. Phantasm, however, was one of the few that terrified me to the point that I remembered the details of it.
I had pretty vivid memories of certain scenes in this film and their effect on my psyche. Once I revisited it in my early teen years, I was still creeped out by it but I was fine and no longer scared. But something about it just resonated with my soul. It’s not a perfect movie but it has this dark mysterious quality that taps into your mind and takes it on a bizarre and incredible journey of sheer terror.
Phantasm, is one of my all-time favorite films and in my top five for the horror of its era. It is light years ahead of anything being pumped out in modern times.
What’s really damn cool about it, is that it has a very solid classic horror vibe to it, while being very ’70s in style. It’s not a slasher picture but in people’s minds, because of the time of its release and having such an iconic monster, it is often brought up in slasher conversations. Really, it is more of a dark sci-fi/fantasy film with an antagonist that would make a formidable slasher but why get your hands too dirty when you have midget minions from Hell and killer spheres to do your bidding?
What makes this so compelling is the story. It is hard to describe without spoiling too much but it is really original and well crafted. Don Coscarelli has a hell of an imagination and nothing else is quite like Phantasm. It’s world is strange, mysterious and even after five films, you still want to understand it. All you ever really get is glimpses and clues to help you connect some dots. But honestly, not fully explaining it is probably why it is so terrifying and effective. Peeking behind the curtain too much would ruin the experience.
Apart from the story, this motion picture has an incredible atmosphere, which is the product of a stupendous score by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, as well as incredible cinematography and set design. The mausoleum feels otherworldly and the rest of the funeral home is visually vivid and surreal.
The special effects are top notch for their time. The flying killer spheres still look fantastic today and even though I know a lot about practical effects from this time period, I’m still amazed at how well Coscarelli pulled these shots off. Also, the scene with the guy getting his head drilled and then the blood spurting out is also masterfully crafted. Then that moment where the guy dies and you see urine pool out near his feet was just great attention to detail and realism that didn’t need to be there but Coscarelli still put the time in making that subtle effect.
I can’t praise Angus Scrimm enough for how well he played the Tall Man. Granted, we’ve never seen another actor step into the role but he just has this brooding presence and a real gift at being able to speak with nothing more than facial expressions. It reminds me of some of the great horror actors of the silent film era.
I adore this movie. A year hasn’t gone by in my life, since I was a teen, where I haven’t watched this at least once. I’m reviewing it now because I just had the pleasure of watching the digitally remastered version, which is exclusive to Shudder. If you have Shudder, you need to watch this near masterpiece there.
Pairs well with: The Phantasm sequels but this is and will always be the best of the series.