Sadly, it is not often enough that one gets to watch a film that is totally unique and wildly imaginative, but thankfully films like PHANTASM do exist. I first saw PHANTASM when I was 19 years old. A buddy and I watched it at the tail end of an all night horror movie marathon. As the sun was rising, we slipped the beat up rental-VHS cassette into the VCR, hit play and shared an experience that we still talk about today, almost 20 years later. We were both in film school at the time, being force-fed hundreds of cinema’s greatest achievements. Our minds were like sponges, being saturated with films by everyone from Georges Méliès and D.W. Griffith to Yasujiro Ozu and Stan Brakhage, but on this fateful night, we were just two film-nerds taking the evening off to enjoy the relief and familiarity of a “creature comfort”—horror movies. As we sat through the 89-minute running time, it became clear that we were watching something very special. This was around the time that I first began to fall in love with horror film music and composers like John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi and the band Goblin. So I found the 70s-synth score exciting and irresistible. To this day, it remains one of my all time favorites and one that I really wanted to feature in my book SCORED TO DEATH, but sadly its brilliant composers, Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, are no longer with us. With an unforgettable score, trans-dimensional tall men, hooded dwarf slaves and brain drilling orbs, PHANTASM delivers a viewing experience unlike anything else being done at the time of its release and even today, almost 4 decades later, it continues to feel singular, weird and magical.
I will never forget the first time I watched PHANTASM. It had always been heralded as one of the “canon” of essential horror films. FRIDAY THE 13TH,NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, HELLRAISER, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD…and PHANTASM. My friends and I would always rent a couple of horror films that we’d never seen (which was many considering we were in middle school), and that would be the main event of our sleepovers. So one weekend we rented DAWN OF THE DEAD and PHANTASM. We watched DAWN OF THE DEAD and of course loved it, and then in the wee hours of the morning turned on PHANTASM. What immediately struck me about it was how dreamlike it all was – nothing really made sense, but it didn’t have to. It was scary, but beautiful, and the Tall Man was terrifying *because* you had no idea why he was doing what he was doing. Then that bonkers ending with the extra-dimensional portal…I had never seen anything like it. Between its nightmare logic, the surreal visuals, the incredible score, and Angus Scrimm’s legendary performance, it’s just perfect. I like movies to be totally unique, and show me something I’ve never even imagined before, and Phantasm does that in every frame. To me, it’s probably the best example of a horror film that shows terror through the eyes of a child. Nightmarish, without logic, and ultimately so deeply scary because nobody believes you. That’s true horror.
Don Coscarelli is a friend of mine. He was the first outsider that I brought in to show BLAIR WITCH. PHANTASM is one of the most enigmatic horror movies of all time. It’s so interpretational. I think the thing that makes that movie interesting is the fact that there is no right answer in terms of what that movie’s about. People have tried to solidify the mythology a bit more, but I like to look at that first film as a real standalone piece. It’s a very haunting, almost sad movie in this very dreamlike way. There’s just nothing out there like it.
FRED VOGEL (Writer/Director, AUGUST UNDERGROUND TRILOGY)What scared me so much is that I related to the Michael character so he was in danger I felt danger from the Tallman. His giant frame standing over me as I slept would haunt me every time I watched PHANTASM . I was the boy.
JOE GRISAFFI (Director CONJOINED/DEAD OF KNIGHT)
I couldn’t tell you why PHANTASM scares people so much. I don’t recall being scared of the film, either, but I can tell you that I was obsessed with that movie in junior high. I went to catholic school, and if you were to come across some of my school books, you would find my drawings of the famous ball attacking many of the people pictured in the books, with blood spraying everywhere! Fortunately, none of my teachers ever saw the books, otherwise, I am sure I would have been exorcised or sent away or something.
PEACHES CHRIST (Drag Performer, Filmmaker, ALL ABOUT EVIL)
For me, PHANTASM was always really terrifying because I somehow saw it as the Satanic other-worldly version of the WILLY WONKA story and it justified all the misgivings I had about that evil Chocolate Factory. The Tall Man is Willy Wonka and the hooded dwarves are the oompa-loompas and the town itself is the Chocolate Factory. I also think that Angus Scrimm is brilliantly creepy and his face was super haunting in a very uniquely classic way.
The deadly silver flying ball and the dwarves menaced me when I was a child. I was so afraid to watch PHANTASM!
GARY PULLIN (Horror Artist, RUE MORGUE)In a time where originality in horror films is almost non-existent, then I recommend revisiting the first PHANTASM film for a jolt. There is no other film you can compare Coscarelli’s PHANTASM to, it truly stands on it’s own.
Seeing it as a young horror fan on home video was a surreal experience. The film score conjures a real sense of dread and I remember having a couple of re-occuring nightmares of being pulled back into a wall by Scrimm’s terrifying Tall Man. Thanks for the night terrors, Mr. Coscarelli.
It was the early 80s and I was knee deep in horror fandom. I was the kid that got VHS bootlegs in NYC when I went to visit my Dad and brought them back to all my friends in Westport, CT for late-night viewings. But one of the flicks I could not get my pre-teen hands on was PHANTASM. I was obsessed. It took years after its release in 1979 for it to get shown on late-night tv. I got my whole family to stay up late with me and watch it on channel 9 for its 11:30 pm showing. I remember it making my little brother cry and run out of the room. My mom and my older brother just didn’t get it. But for me, it was a whole new world of awesome. I loved it. I was so freaked out by it because it actually scared me. And nothing scared me. I was the kid who didn’t jump when Jason jumped out of the water at the end of FRIDAY THE 13th. PHANTASM terrified me. And it stayed with me. The characters, the setting, the overall feeling of dread. That autumnal chill in the air that you could almost feel coming off the screen. The movie is transformative and it feels like a waking nightmare. And any director who can make an audience feel that they might not wake up from the movie they’re watching… well… Let’s just say it made me a fan of Coscarelli for life.