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Movie still from 1979's "Phantasm."

Phantasm October 15, 2016

In which the bogeyman is turned into a murderball-slinging, monkey-suited alien with an arm swing to rival Tyra Banks'. If 1979’s Phantasm is sufficiently frightening then Friday the 13th is original, though 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. He was 22 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 inexperience is also, I think, what contributes to the rampant narrative loose ends and an inability to find any sort of believability in the dialogue. 


Using surrealism and disjointedness as attributes to further enhance its night-terror energy, the film is a hotbed of freaky imagery. (It never proves itself much more than a haunting array of images.) One can only wonder what David Cronenberg or Clive Barker could have done with material as brimming with potential as Phantasm’sIts storyline sounds sturdy enough, but interest is lost in execution. The film circles around Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), a 13-year-old grappling with the recent death of his parents.  Being raised by his 20-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; simple everyday existence is still gloomy.


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 singular, he’s holistically a representation of a child’s fear of dominating authority and other powerful figures. Still, 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 an enchilada of horror tropes that never quite flourish The introduction to one of the horror genre's more idiosyncratically frightening antagonists is notable. He just doesn't have a movie to sturdily back him. C


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