Saturday, February 9, 2008
I’m hard-pressed to think of any horror franchise with installments that are as consistently good and as consistently provocative as Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” series. Sure, there was that hiccup with “Lord of the Dead”, but a series containing three stellar episodes and one mediocre episode is a damn sight better than most horror franchises. The first “Phantasm” is, of course, the quintessential installment in the series and easily the most mind-warping.
Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) is a young boy living in the suburbs with his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury). Desperately trying to cope with the recent loss of his parents, Mike has begun to worry that Jody might be leaving him some time soon. His older brother quickly becomes the least of his problems, as Mike accidentally encounters the mysterious “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) at Morningside Cemetery, ghoulishly stealing caskets when he should be burying them. Things immediately escalate, as Mike, Jody and their friend, Reggie (Reggie Banister), find themselves being stalked by malformed monsters in dark robes. As it turns out, the Tall Man is harvesting corpses and sending them away to a Hellish dimension where they’re reformatted into his army of dwarves and killer orbs. The three friends have to find some way to stop the Tall Man, but the longer they wait the more reality begins to unwind.
“Phantasm” will stick with you for a number of reasons. Personally, I think what trails along with my psyche longest whenever I watch the movie is the score. It’s so eerily melodic and captures the “waking dream” concept of the film better than anything else. In fact, it reminded me of “Suspiria” in a number of ways.
Music aside, what really clings to me about this movie would have to be the cast of villains. Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man is without a doubt a horror icon. Commanding in presence with an utterly dead and merciless visage, he is definitely the stuff of nightmares. Also, you wouldn’t think that dwarves would be all that frightening, but Coscarelli manages to work a sense of dread into them, as they creep around graveyards late at night, howling and snarling. And lastly, who could forget the killer sphere, otherwise known as the Sentinel? An incredibly easy and cheap effect (a silver ball strung up on fishing line), it’s none-the-less awesome and provides one of the best kills in the whole movie. I used to have a toy when I was a kid called a “string racer” and I liked to pretend it was a Sentinel. I think I was the only kid in my school who would “play Phantasm”.
One of the aspects of “Phantasm” which hit closest to home was the location. It all takes place within a very unassuming and average suburb. I grew up in a place that looks just like it and I’m sure a lot of you people reading this review did, too. This “Anywhere, America” approach not only worked in regards to striking a chord with the audience, but it also works with the overall story arc of the series (the Tall Man traveling from one small town to another, raiding their cemeteries for minions and sucking the towns dry).
I used to be a regular poster over at the currently defunct Fridaythe13thfilms.com message board (I joined back in 1999) and one of the most interesting descriptions I recall hearing in regards to “Phantasm” is that it’s “the thinking man’s horror franchise”. That couldn’t be more honest, as “Phantasm” is a series that requires your full attention and your full imagination. The movie rarely gives anything to you straight and requires you to think about how things are happening and what things mean. Since there are no definite answers, audience members usually come away with their own personal interpretations and opinions on things. Confusing, perhaps, but at the very least it leads to some fascinating conversations with other horror fans.
I guess if I had to sling some negative criticism in “Phantasm’s” direction, it would have to be in regards to some of the special effects. A few look downright silly, particularly the giant fly monster that attacks Mike and Jody in their home. And, although it’s right up my alley, I know plenty of people who detest surreal horror flicks (such as my brother) and so if that isn’t your cup of tea then you aren’t likely to enjoy “Phantasm”.
The “Phantasm” franchise is one of the most epic horror series you’re ever likely to find, and it all starts with this installment. Even if you don’t plan on viewing the exceptional sequels, this first film stands perfectly well on its own.
Grade: A (as in “After seeing this movie, all I wanted for Christmas was a tuning fork”.)