Phantasm is one of those movies that demonstrates how flexible the horror genre is. Though made over 30 years ago, it still proves to be ferociously original and memorable. The story follows teenaged Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), an orphan who lives with his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), and his investigations into a series of strange events at the local cemetery. He uncovers a sinister plot by the deliciously evil Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) to enslave the town’s dead on his hellish red planet. That’s the plot in a nutshell, but beneath its pulpy surface the film is so much more.
Find out more after the jump!
I first saw Phantasm during a summer where I made a pact with myself to get through as many of the major horror franchises as possible. Seeing as how my summer was filled with masked killers and disposable victims, it isn’t hard to imagine why Phantasm so easily stood out. There were several reasons for this.
For one, placing the film firmly in one genre seems unfair. Yes, it certainly works as a horror movie. It has all the right elements: an eerie setting, a mean villain, suspense, and a foreboding sense of the supernatural. As we learn more about the Tall Man’s plot and origins, regardless of how vague the details are, the film also becomes passable as a science fiction feature. Its surreal dreamlike approach to storytelling and its ultra-low-budget effects definitely put it right at home in the company of other strange cult films. This bizarre crossbreeding of multiple genres certainly helped the film carve a place in the hearts of fans (or “phans” as we prefer to be called), but there’s something more to the film still.
Underneath its cross-genre skin, Phantasm is really a dark literary examination on the nature of death. The mystery of it. The fear.
Excellent cult film critic, John Kenneth Muir, states in his analysis, “In fact, it is not at all difficult to interpret the film’s events as one teenager’s powerful subconscious fantasy, his sublimation and re-direction of grief as he attempts to make sense of all the death happening around him, in life and in his immediate family. The film’s almost childish tale of a Fairy Tale monster — a witch-like “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) who enslaves the dead — is actually but Michael’s (Michael Baldwin’s) self-constructed mythology regarding mortality.”
Viewed in that context, as a coming-of-age psychodrama in which a child learns about death, it isn’t difficult to see why the film still resonates so well with people even today. It touches on universal fears, something that is a must for making a horror film effective for years to come. On first viewing, it’s easy to get caught up in the mystery, the dwarves, the silver spheres, and the characters, but the subtext is what gives it the staying power that it has today. The shadow of the Tall Man, the shadow of death, looms over every life, and in Coscarelli’s film, that point is drilled home (pun intended) with deadly accuracy.