I think what made/makes PHANTASM work so well is that the ideas don’t fit into any established mythology, so you simply have no idea where it’s going. It’s far from a perfect movie, but there’s no denying the iconic power of the Phantasm Ball (which I can’t bring myself to call a sentinel sphere) or of–gasp–Angus Scrimm. Boyyyyyyy!
The graininess of the picture,the out of sync sound,the bad lighting..It all played a part,for me. It’s what I like about a lot of Late 70’s/Early 80’s Horror Films. Almost like you’re watching something that you shouldn’t be. Like illegal pornography. But,with Angus Scrimm as our Ron Jeremy.
The silver spheres. The cemetery. The dwarves. The Hemi ‘Cuda. Reggie, the “hot as love” ice cream man. The dwarves. The Tall Man. For my money, I’m not sure there is another horror film that does “small town horror” as right as PHANTASM, save perhaps John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Don Coscarelli’s wonderful film is almost a love letter to everything I adore within the horror genre. I first came across PHANTASM as a child, via a television broadcast hosted by Indiana horror host Sammy Terry. I was too young to really understand it, and most likely did not finish it, but I still remember the Tall Man’s yellow blood and twitching severed finger as one of the most memorable images to be imprinted on my young and morbid mind. Growing more familiar with the film later in life, I was amazed at how effective it still remains; some genre films age horribly, but PHANTASM ages like a fine wine. Much like SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, PHANTASM takes a Norman Rockwell-esque landscape and turns it on its head, making for a terrifying cinematic experience that is all too familiar. While I’ll admit that it’s arguable that PHANTASM is almost more successful as a pastiche of Americana horrors than a full narrative, it’s that very nightmarish-dreamscape quality that continues to impact its viewers.
“You think when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!…” What can I say about 1979’s PHANTASM? My first viewing was on VHS in the beginning of the VHS mom and pop store revolution. I’d rent everything “horror” I could get my hands on. PHANTASM was one of my all time favorites. It’s like a classic “brother adventure” movie with great lines and boobs. I was hooked. It was very different than the current fare of cheese and blood. It was actually a great story with great characters. Dare I say a “sci-fi” horror? I do know that I’ve never walked into a cemetery or mausoleum the same way since watching. Every since then I’ve expected to see the “Tall Man” come walking around a corner! Think about it… there was a silver orb that would stick in your forehead and pump the blood out of your body? Oh yeah, and once you’re dead they’d squish you down to 3 feet tall and make you a zombie slave in another dimension? In a nutshell it had “balls”… I know, not just those. It had an adult edge that as a kid I appreciated and felt like I was doing something wrong when I was watching it… That’s some serious shit for a 12 year old to be watching late at night in his room!
The film came out when I was a boy, when I was around 11-12. I think part of the answer lies in the film’s imagery. The tall man, the flying orb, the hit in the forehead…those images brought home a nightmarish series of images that haunted what I felt was a solid advertising campaign. In addition the film was different. It was demonic possession that the box office was just coming off of. It wasn’t aliens and it sure wasn’t STAR WARS. I think we see a similar aspect in the wake of one super hero movie after another in this summer’s box office: LIGHTS OUT was the big winner because it was not crash and boom super hero noise. I think there was a similar effect with PHANTASM after the film altering success of STAR WARS. Ironic that it’s Abrams behind the remastering. So in other words it was an odd moment when something small, something fresh with some imagination hit at the right moment and played against type. The end of the 70s saw the end of what many see as horror’s golden decade. JAWS and STAR WARS changed filmmaking and distribution forever. PHANTASM might have been that decade’s last horror gasp.
I have a special connection to horror films because they were some of the best memories from my childhood. I only saw my father on weekends, and we would watch whatever horror movie I decided to pick out at the Videotime in Canton, Ohio, and later the Slavic Village Video Store in Cleveland, Ohio when he moved for work. Every film I have ever seen, but especially from the horror genre, is a marker. I can remember where I was, how many times I’ve seen it, and, like any other sense, it invokes a feeling in me. PHANTASM was a film that I grew into. It was the time in my life when I began to be aware of my subconscious. Most little girls and boys grow up with an otherworldly place in mind: THE SECRET GARDEN,THE LION THE WITH AND THE WARDROBE, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, PETER PAN. Of course, I loved all of those books as well, but I knew my reality, and I knew that there would be no Turkish delights or ruby red slippers in my future. PHANTASM was my wardrobe; it was my dark and twisted rabbit hole. Two decades later, when I watch PHANTASM, I remember sitting with my dad, eating ice cream for dinner, screaming and laughing every time that sphere ruined someone’s day.
What frightened me about PHANTASM is also what so charmed me about it from the first time I saw it on my uncle’s Pay TV service in 1981 to now: the boundless imagination and leaps into infinite possibilities that truly conjure the experience of a nightmare. In fact, PHANTASM frightened me before I ever even watched the movie. FANGORIA ran pictures of the tall man and the gooey finger and the flying spike ball doing it splattery drill business and I thought—oh, no; they can do absolutely ANYTHING in movies now!
PHANTASM has long been a fascinating entry into the horror genre. I first stumbled upon the series courtesy of Joe Bob Briggs MONSTER VISION on TNT one balmy Saturday night in Tucson, Arizona. The images of the Tall Man, his silver spheres and the other worldly red planet made a rather large impression on my eleven year old mind. A couple years later, when I finally started braving movies like THE EVIL DEAD and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, the original PHANTASM shot to the top of my ‘must watch’ list.I’d long wondered about what it all meant. It was a unique vision, on what didn’t seem like that small of a budget to me from a very, very young Don Coscarelli. From the opening scene where a hefty dude with a handlebar mustache looking like a roadie for ‘YES’ settles into the graveyard to bed the gorgeous Lady In Lavender (who soon transforms into the Tall Man and murders him), I knew this was not your typical horror movie.What followed was another unique idea — centering the movie around Jody and Mike Pearson two brothers whom recently lost their parents and their ice cream truck-owning pal Reggie. It’s quite odd to see a horror movie with three males at the helm as most of the classics tend to favor a female protagonist; everything about the movie captivated me. I was obsessed.In fact, a few years down the road when I finally started dating, I forced my first girlfriend to watch it on our first date to pass the sniff test if we could be a couple. She loved the movie and naturally, I fell for her.There’s something quite pervasive about PHANTASM’s narrative, mythology, iconography and the magic pairing of actors in the right place at the right time. Every thing is used pitch perfectly and Coscarelli’s taut direction and writing is hard to top. The idea he was in his early twenties when he made this blows my mind. He had the skills of someone twice his age with all the energy needed to pull off a dimension-hopping, supernatural-skewing graveyard tale about three guys going up against what might be an un-killable alien.Another odd thing I’ve found in this movie in recent years is that Wes Craven seems to have directly lifted the ending of ‘Nightmare On Elm Street’ from the original PHANTASM and various other ideas. I cannot wait for the remaster and to see what Coscarelli does next.
I never forgot the first time I watched PHANTASM on VHS, I had rented it from Hollywood Video and I had no real idea what I was in for. Films like E.T. or GOONIES teach you how to dream, but PHANTASM taught me how to have a nightmare. It perfectly taps into the primal fears we have in our minds, it’s scary in an ethereal sense that is hard to explain. The movie is a nightmare.
Okay, what made PHANTASM initially terrifying was the age I was and the era that it was released. The trailers alone on regular TV had you freaking out as a 9-10 year old about those flying spheres chasing you around… fuck that! And since I didn’t get a chance (luckily) to see it in theaters, it wasn’t until I was about 13-14 before I had a full sitting with this indie-horror classic.PHANTASM‘s charms all come from how low-budget it had to be, like many other burgeoning horror/splatter classics soon to follow. That made the environ of PHANTASM so creepy… the shadows were real..as was the emptiness in the corridors, or the somewhat hazy tone that permeated all of the scenes shot in the daytime.. You never felt like you were ever away from the terror that had to be dealt with.And the mystery of the story leaves you waiting til almost the end cut. All of the carnage has a purpose and it’s not excessive in bodycount like future slasher flicks where cast members evaporate after their 3rd take in the film..Even though it’s over 35+ years deep, PHANTASM endears because now, at 46, all of it’s creepy tricks still work, if not even more so than before. I still don’t want to think about those fucking spheres flying around after me since I’m overweight & drunk all the time..fuck that! (once again)..This movie was definitely a progenitor of the self-made slasher era of horror that was about soon explode and is why DECADES later, PHANTASM holds a very respectable, and terrifying place in horror history.