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…”