PHANTASM October 15, 2016
In which the bogeyman is turned into a murderball slinging monkey-suited alien with an arm swing to rival Tyra’s. If 1979’s Phantasm is soundly scary then Friday the 13th must be original, but at least the former tries to make something of its low-budget self, which is worth something even if the value at hand is little.
Famously, Phantasm was made on a wing and a prayer by young Hollywood wunderkind Don Coscarelli, who was twenty-two during production and was only a teenager when he made his first film, 1975 drama Jim the World’s Greatest. Written, directed, edited, produced, and photographed by Coscarelli, Phantasm wears the stamp of economic less-is-more filmmaking proudly on its chest — but in effect do we additionally blame its relative inability to tie up loose ends and its inability to find any sort of conversational believability on the inexperience of the film’s otherwise inventive maker.
Using surrealism and unmistakable disjointedness as attributes to further enhance its night terror reflecting patina, the film is a hotbed of disconcerting imagery that never proves to be much more than its haunting array of images. Coscarelli has a way with the camera and a way with the art of the concept, but his fundamentally materialistic screenplay never allows for his abstractions to bury their claws into our vulnerable flesh. One can only wonder what David Cronenberg or Clive Barker could have done with material as brimming with potential as Phantasm’s.
Its storyline sounds sturdy enough, but interest is lost in execution. The film circles around Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), a thirteen-year-old grappling with the recent death of his parents. Being raised by his twenty-something brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), the grieving period has been slow and painful — it’s been two years since the demise of their loved ones and simple everyday existence is still gloomy.
But suspicions that the local mortician, whom Mike dubs “The Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm), was the person responsible for their ends suddenly are propelled to new levels when Mike witnesses the man stealing a coffin from its resting place shortly after a memorial service, remarkably throwing the casket into his car without a hint of assistance. A short time later and the goon is chasing Mike around with killer silver ski balls that hook onto their victims and funnel out all their blood in a steady stream. So sure, The Tall Man, an obvious dweller of the underworld or some other hellacious netherworld, probably did kill Mike’s parents.
And yet the fiend’s very existence strikes a universal chord of fear within its audience — while The Tall Man’s motivations are individualistic, he’s holistically a representation of a child’s fear of dominating authority and other figures of intimidating power. Because Coscarelli’s script is much too underdeveloped to bring us to any real conclusions, though, we only reach that epiphany out of an elongated search for something to grab onto. Coscarelli succeeds in sketching out a memorable villain, but fails in his determination to build a posse of protagonists worth noting.
When The Tall Man’s not stalking the shadows and those amazingly murderous Christmas ornament imitating balls of fury aren’t flying about looking for a piece of human to snack on, Phantasm is decidedly derisory, an enchilada of horror tropes that never prosper because they’re so flavorless. But it flourishes in its introduction to one of horror’s more idiosyncratically frightening antagonists, and there’s no ignoring The Tall Man’s cryptic capacity. If only he had a film to cogently back his demonic presence. C