“Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm – – Thought Provoking Horror”

Awaking in a cold sweat from a fevered dream, the teenager wipes the sweat off the brow of his forehead, scans the surroundings of his bedroom looking for familiar comforting sights, and places his hand over his chest to listen to the rapid beating of his heart in order to make sure that he is still alive; at least that’s how I envision it. Don Coscarelli was at that point still several years away from directing his first film, “Jim, the World’s Greatest” (1976), but in that dream he had just been given a gift – – the germ of the idea for his third, and most enduring movie, “Phantasm.” If he had never dreamt of running down seemingly endless marble corridors pursued by a deadly head hunter, one that did not take human form, but that of a blood thirsty, chrome sphere which glided through the air ready to penetrate his flesh with its unforgiving blades, would the movie ever have come into existence? Luckily, for horror fans the world over, that question can remain pure speculation. Premiering in January of 1979 at the “Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival” in France, Coscarelli’s film born of a nightmare became a stark celluloid reality.

According to an interview Coscarelli gave at the “Big Bear Horror Film Festival” in Big Bear Lake, California, he had the following to say as to why he wanted to make a movie that dealt with Phantasm’s themes:

          “I had compunction to try to do something in the horror genre and I started thinking about how our culture handles death; it’s different than in other societies. We have this central figure of a mortician. He dresses in dark clothing, he lurks behind doors, they do procedures on the bodies we don’t know about. The whole embalming thing, if you ever do any research on it, is pretty freaky. It all culminates in this grand funerary service production. It’s strange stuff. It just seemed like it would be a great area in which to make a film.”

Armed with those thoughts and the vividness of his dream, Coscarelli isolated himself from society for several weeks in a cabin at the mountains outside of Los Angeles while he worked on the script. His self-imposed isolation took place years before cell phones, laptops, ipads, and other means of instant communication – – it was just him and his notes and a typewriter. I can picture him sitting and starring at the front door to the cabin, morbid thoughts running through his mind. Did his contemplations encompass not only the afterlife and what, if anything, happens, but the various earthly materials of death that stare those of us who are still living in the face as we say our goodbyes to loved ones and friends? Did he think about the coffin that houses the body of the departed; the funeral parlor where remembrances are spoken and religious services are carried out; the pall bearers that lift the several hundred pound casket and carry it out to the cold death mobile known as a hearse; the graveyard where the hearse stops to drop off the coffin because the person inside has reached their final step in the journey of mortal life? While he sat there and worked through his scenes both in his mind and on paper, did his brain play tricks on him? Did he sense a dangerous presence lurking in the nearby woods headed toward where he was? Did his own prolific imagination give way to the thought that at any second the door to the cabin would fly off of its hinges, revealing an alien undertaker from another world standing on the other side who had come to claim his eternal soul?  Regardless, that which sprung forth from mind to page to screen produced an atmospheric horror film, replete with bizarre images, that also offers three dimensional characters, exudes foreboding, and provides an enigmatic antagonist in the character of the “Tall Man.”

Debuting in America on March 28, 1979, the eighty-eight minute cult gem was made for an estimated $300,000 and went on to gross a little over twelve million. Languidly dreamlike and poignantly haunting, the film is seen through the eyes of Michael (Michael Baldwin), a heartbroken and lonely adolescent, who, rather than confront the reality of the situation regarding the death of his parents, re-directs his grief onto a fictitious spectre that permeates his disturbed mental landscape. Writer and director, Coscarelli, in this blogger’s opinion, has a clear understanding of the adolescent mind and because of that is able to create a successful figment of Michael’s imagination as it pertains to his perspective of death and what is shown to the viewer.

Whether directly or indirectly, all films that can be categorized in the horror genre deal with a fear that resides in even the most jaded amongst us – that being mortality and the cessation of life. Baldwin’s character is investigating, what to him, are the strange occurrences taking place at Morningside Funeral Home. As an aside, the actual mortuary used in the movie is located in Oakland, California and is a Victorian mansion known as the Dunsmuir-Hellman House which was built by Alexander Dunsmuir in 1899 as a wedding gift for his wife Josephine. In addition to the mortuary scenes, filming also took place in other locations of Southern California. A small scene was shot in Julian and the majority of the principal photography took place in the San Fernando Valley in Chatsworth during nights and weekends for approximately one year.

The Concept Michael has of death is manifested in the person of the Tall Man in an iconic performance completely embodied by Angus Scrimm (I Sell The Dead). Apparently, the Tall Man is not of our world, but of one where slave labor is the order of the day. His mission on our earth is to ensnare young men with the help of an enticing vixen who lures men with the promise of sex, but ultimately is the catalyst which leads them to their demise. Death, however, is not the end of the torment; what comes after they die, in this blogger’s opinion, is much worse. The victims of lustful aspirations are crushed down to half their original size (never shown on screen) given brown hooded robes to wear that make them look like the Jawas from the Star Wars universe, and forced to work for the Tall Man in an environment that is the antithesis of heavenly.

Throughout the film, I kept asking myself, is what I am seeing supposed to be real or a coping mechanism for Baldwin’s character? Michael is undeniably obsessed with the subject of death and rightfully so considering he just lost his parents. But is it his fears we are watching unfold from scene to scene or a genuine threat to society that has invaded small town America? I first saw the film when I was a teenager, so I certainly wasn’t asking myself those questions or any questions for that matter; I just wanted to be entertained. Watching the film now and thinking about it with an adult mindset, aspects that were not apparently clear during my initial viewing have become crystallized. In this blogger’s opinion, what is implied is that as adults we accept, begrudgingly, that our life will one day no longer exist, at least in corporeal form. Without attempting to invoke a philosophical debate on what awaits us, if anything, once we pass away, as an adult watching the film, I know that I am mortal and not immortal. I am sure as a teenager I naively thought the latter, but I have long since reversed that immature train of thought. For an adult, a coffin, a graveyard, a mortician, all of the elements that comprise the industry of death, if you will, are taken as givens – – no matter how much we may grieve – – but for Michael those things transcend their basic meanings. They serve as constant symbols of the loss of his parents at an age where he is not yet ready to face adult responsibilities on his own without guidance. Instead of viewing them as regular objects and people, which serve a purpose or do a job, he sees them as a collective whole, as cogs in a battle between good and evil; a battle which he intends to win in order to right the wrong of the tragedy that, thanks to the nefarious master plan of the Tall Man, struck his family.

To make matters worse, Michael tries in vain to convince his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), of his findings, but is greeted only with skepticism. Jody is tired of being thrust into the role of parental guardian, he’s a young guy and is looking to leave town in search of new adventures. The thought of yet more abandonment is terrifying to Michael. For example, in one scene, Michael is running in the background of the frame, chasing after Jody who is on a bike and from all appearances not that far away, certainly in calling distance. But instead of yelling out to his brother, Michael stops running and just watches as Jody continues to get further away until he is completely gone. In this blogger’s opinion, Coscarelli is trying to convey to the viewer, in this evocative scene, that no matter how hard we try to hold onto the way things are, that change is sometimes inevitable.

But, in the world of isolation from reality that Michael has created for himself, he soon is able to get the proof he needs in the form of the Tall Man’s severed finger, which should be dead flesh, but lives on apart from his body. Now that Jody is convinced that real danger exists, Michael’s fears are assuaged because he knows his older brother will not listen to the call of the open road, but instead stay to help him. There is evil to vanquish and only together, along with help from their ice cream vending friend Reggie, portrayed by Reggie Bannister, can they cause the destruction of the Tall Man. In keeping with standard childhood fairy tale motifs, the trio saves the world from the Tall Man’s malevolent presence by destroying him; however that is not the end to the tale. In the closing minutes of the film, Michael wakes from what has been all along a dream where he must finally face the reality of his life. His parents are dead and so to, sadly, is his brother, who died in a car crash. Reggie will have to be his solace in a world devoid of family. Does Michael finally accept his life as it truly is? That is for you to watch the film and find out.

Another element of the movie that is noteworthy is the effective score. Composed by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, it repeats throughout the film and serves to compliment what is transpiring on the screen. It takes on a life of its own, and is reminiscent, in a stylistic way, of John Carpenter’s composition for the 1978 film “Halloween.” The music is the blending of several instruments which provide a textured, multi-dimensional sound that lends a wonderful air of foreboding to the atmosphere of the movie.

Trivia buffs take note: “Phantasm’s” Turkish title “Manyak,” translates into the same name as the classic Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest) film “Psycho.” Standing at 6 feet 4 inches, actor Angus Scrimm lived up to his on-screen moniker, the Tall Man; yet to add to his persona, not only did he wear suits that were several times smaller to make him appear larger, but he also put on boots with lifts inside that added an additional three inches to his already imposing height. The film made Bravo’s list of the“100 Scariest Movie Moments,” coming in at number twenty-five on the countdown, for the sequence involving Michael’s nightmare in bed. Five of the actors involved with “Phantasm” had appeared in one of Don Coscarelli’s previous two films: “Jim, the World’s Greatest,” and “Kenny & Company,” (1976). One of the actors who Don Coscarelli worked with on his first film was Angus Scrimm, but at the time he went by the name of Rory Guy.

In closing, this is what Don Coscarelli had to say at the “2012 SXSW Film Festival” about the possibility of a “Phantasm” remake.

          “I am a Phantasm fan myself because after all these years, I now see these movies through the eyes of the fans, so it would be wonderful if we lived in a perfect world that a Phantasm remake would happen like that. But we just don’t, so the powers that be would just get whatever flavor of the month director they could to direct a Phantasm remake and then cast it with a bunch of kids from the CW network, and that’s just not the right approach. It’s a real slippery slope, which is why a remake hasn’t happened yet- – but I think if the right opportunity arose, I’d be absolutely up for it…”  


About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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18 Responses to “Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm – – Thought Provoking Horror”

  1. This a fantastic article, brilliantly written and insightful. This has helped me understand even further the ideas behind this classic movie. The score, alongside ‘Halloween’s’, is the best of any genre movie, or any movie period! I love the movie so much I have the word ‘Phantasm’ tattooed on my back.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you so much for your compliment regarding my Phantasm blog. I greatly appreciate it.

      • Anytime. I’m 31 and have been a massive phan of the movie since I was about 8. I have t-shirts, posters, original 70’s Fangoria magazines covering it, my tattoo, the limited edition sphere model boxset etc I own a kind of static website http://horrorremakes.com – if you like I could put this post on it (obviously give you full credit) and put any links you would like in the article. I always try to add more to the site but work gets in the way. It does generate a reasonable amount of hits though.

      • robbinsrealm says:

        WOW! I genuinely appreciate the type of fan that you are. I have been that way with particular movies and television shows throughout the course of my life so far. Thank you very much for thinking enough of my work to want to share it with your followers and include it on your own website horrorremakes.com. I greatly appreciate it.

  2. Mark says:

    I was in the opening of “Jim, the World’s Greatest” with my brother and cousin who played “Young Jim”. My uncle also played the High School Principal. Any idea where I can find a copy of the movie?

  3. I’ll be glad to put the article up and I’ll let you know when I get around to doing it! Thanks again!

  4. filmhipster says:

    Really great review! Well done.

  5. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    This is fantastic – just fantastic!

    You commented on my blog ages ago (thank you!) & I’m only just now getting in to see you & I get a treat like this! This is magnificent writing – not to mention an engaging subject.

    Love the photos – that ball especially, as you can’t see the camera which is taking the photo, in the reflection – you’ve got me on that one!

    Not surprised you’re a teacher, & Bachelor of – quality blog.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      I am very grateful to you for your comment regarding my blog. I always appreciate feedback, but to receive such a wonderful comment about my writing is very gratifying indeed. Thank you so very much for reading my blogs and commenting; I greatly appreciate it.

  6. great review and article. Love the quote at the end by Don Coscarelli about a Phantasm remake. I don’t think this film should be remade – it should be watched and honored in its current state 🙂

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting. I agree 100% with both you and Coscarelli, I don’t think the film needs to be re-made; it is a classic horror gem the way it is. I just recently re-watched part two, and, of course, I am now going to have to sit down and watch parts three and four. I had heard talk a while back that Coscarelli was re-uniting the original cast for a part five, but I haven’t read anything else about that in quite a long time.

  7. Wonderful wonderful analysis on a classic horror film. Today, I am not sure if it is truly scary to the current generation I am a part of but this really should be appreciated more.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you so very much for your compliment regarding my blog. I’m glad that you like it. I always appreciate anyone who takes the time to read what I have written and either ‘like’ the blog or leave a comment.

  8. lumtaut says:

    Hi, there! I am a Phantasm fan in Argentina and I wish to compliment you for this superb piece of writing. I enjoyed reading it very much! I had the privilege of watching Phantasm III – Lord of the dead with my best friend when it was theatrically released here, in 1994. I hadn’t seen any of the previous installments but the movie stuck in my mind. I think it constitutes one of the all-time greatest horror flicks, and one that should inspire new horror film directors as well. Many thanks for sharing your very valuable insight here!

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Welcome, and greetings from America. Thank you very much for taking the time to read, write your extraordinarily kind comment, and become a follower of my blog. I am truly appreciative of all three of those things. I am very glad that you enjoyed reading my post.

      It sounds like you have a very nice memory, as it pertains to your friend and the Phantasm franchise. I very often think back to the days where movies filled a tremendous void in my life and that of my friends, before we were all old enough to drive, and started getting invited to parties, etc. The funny thing is, I own all four films in the series on DVD, and the only one I haven’t watched yet is the third film. I am going to make it my business to change that in the very near future.

      I couldn’t agree with you more, that there are numerous images in Phantasm that surely stand out and stick in a person’s mind. While I hope that it will continue to entice, and most of all inspire, new horror directors to share their work with the public, I hope that it will be a film, that will be left alone, for future generations to enjoy as it was originally intended. There is no reason, to re-make Phantasm, especially the original, just like there was no reason to re-make A Nightmare on Elm Street.

      Once again, thank you so very much for your compliment on my work; I very much appreciate it. Please feel free to comment on any of my posts. I hope to hear from you again in the near future.

      • lumtaut says:

        Hello! First of all, I would like to apologize for having vanished all this time. At the moment I first commented on your post, I was studying for what was my last college exam to graduation, for which I had to sit few days later. Then came the holidays and a few other hindrances I encountered.
        Yes, you could say that my memory works well. Were you able to watch Lord of the dead yet? I told you that I did in 1994, but what I did not mention was that I saw the first two only last year. And hear this, as I found out that number 5 is coming soon, I made my friend watch the original last December, with me again, exactly 20 years after we saw the third one at the movie theater! Then I rewatched Phantasm II and yet III again with him this year. We only need to watch Oblivion in order to be ready for number 5, back at the theater. Does all this sound insane to you?
        I want to apologize for my English as well, my grammar requires an upgrade.

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