Phantasm (1979) Review

Much like the deranged and diversely entertaining House series Phantasm is another horror franchise that had somehow passed me by. Thankfully the amazing Arrow Video have given the five films to an extra special reissue bringing them to Blu-ray for the first time and allowing me to experience them for the first time too.

It turns out that off all cult classic horror films to know nothing about Phantasm is one of the best being that the first part of the series written, directed and produced by Don Coscarelli is a frantic fever dream deliberately constructed to keep you confused and on edge throughout.

The fundamental plot revolves around two brothers 20 something Jody (Bill Thornbury) a musician and Mike ( A. Michael Baldwin) his 13 year old charge and responsibility since their parents both died. Although deeply dedicated to his teenage sibling Jody is bored of the small town life style and Mike frets constantly that his big brother will abandon him.

After Jody’s band mate seemingly commits suicide he becomes even more restless but watching the funeral from afar Mike sees a terrifying Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) picking the casket up single handily and taking it away into the unnerving Morningside Mortuary where many of the townsfolk are interred.

Suspicious and scared Mike follows Jody around to protect him, even when he hooks up with a mysterious girl in the cemetery, but is attacked by strange small snarling creatures that scamper away. Convinced the Tall Man is up to no good he enters the menacing mortician’s lair only to discover secrets and horrors far worse than he could ever imagine.

With its excellent and eerie reoccurring theme tune, sensational set piece scares and instantly iconic villain with his inspired spiked flying silver death sphere Phantasm deserves its place among the great horror franchises but what surprised me most of all was the style of the film which was far more surreal than I had expected.

The first half an hour is a slow and intriguing set up that leaves the viewer confused as to what is actually happing. Throwing in several ideas from the supernatural to the psychological and more we are not sure if this is all just Mike’s teen fantasy as he desperately tries to convince his brother to believe him.

Things take a turn for the terrifying when Mike breaks into Morningside and confronts the Tall Man and his lackey giving us the first look at his Sci-Fi style floating killer ball and some great gore when our unwitting hero chops his lanky attackers fingers off and they spew out yellow liquid while still moving around on the floor.

From this point the plot goes out the window and Phantasm descends into a nightmarish assault on the senses as Mike, Jody and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) mount an attack on the Tall Man armed to the teeth culminating in the shocking discovery of his true identity and the disturbing revelation of what he is doing with the towns dead.

Playing out like a chaotic fantasy inside Mike’s head where he gets to shoot guns, fight evil, face his fears and reclaim power from the malevolent otherworldly being all with his brother at his side we are all caught up and forced along for the ride and the what, why and how gets left behind replaced by anger, action and shock ridden entertainment.

Disjointed and almost art house in its editing and shots Don Coscarelli crafts a film far more stylised than might be expected evoking nightmares and fears far better than a standard mainstream horror and it’s no surprise to find out he was inspired by Argento’s Suspiria when watching Phantasm.

Thematically Phantasm deals brilliantly with death and our primal fear of what happens to us after life has left us placing the Tall Man as a totem of terror representing our inability to stop the inevitable end or what happens to us when we are gone.

A fantastic cult horror I am glad I finally got to see Phantasm at long last. This is a fear filled flight into a warped and wicked world and an excellent opening to the series that spans over five films made all the better for the Arrow treatment and the brilliant box set they come in.

Movie Rating: ★

★ ★ ★ ☆ 

Phantasm 1-5 – The Arrow Video Story:


Alex Humphrey

Alex studied film at the University of Kent and went on to work for Universal Pictures in their Post Room gaining an inside look at the movie industry from the very bottom. Constantly writing reviews in everything from local magazines to Hip Hop sites Alex honed his critical skills even spending a brief period as a restaurant critic. Read more

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