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Phantasm

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 03/25/07 21:57:25

"Puts the "cult" and the "classic" in "cult classic."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

In three decades as an independent filmmaker, Don Coscarelli ("Bubba Ho-Tep," "Beastmaster") has made nine films (three as sequels), a slim output by most standards, but given Coscarelli's genre specialization (i.e., horror), unsurprising. Coscarelli, however, didn't start out in horror. Coscarelli wrote and directed two little known, low-budget films, "Jim, the World's Greatest" and "Kenny & Company" that helped Coscarelli find funding for his third film (his first in the horror genre), "Phantasm," an idiosyncratic mix of supernatural horror, science fiction (some original, some derivative), and a dream-like structure matched by a dream-logic that's as unsettling and disturbing as anything you'll find in 70s or 80s genre filmmaking.

Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) appear at the Morningside Cemetery for the funeral of their friend and band mate, Tommy (Bill Cone). The mausoleumís director (Angus Scrimm), a/k/a the Tall Man, ushers them quickly through the funeral. Jody's younger brother, Michael (Michael Baldwin), watches the funeral from a distance against his over-protective brotherís wishes (their parents died tragically two years earlier in an accident). Michael unexpectedly spots the Tall Man carrying Tommyís five hundred pound coffin with minimal effort.

Curious, Michael decides to check out the funeral parlor/mausoleum at night, but his presence alerts the Tall Man and his acolytes, dwarves dressed in monk robes. A skeptical Jody goes to the mausoleum and barely escapes with his life. With Reggie helping, Jody tries several times to keep Michael out of harm's way. The closer they get to the truth hidden inside the mausoleum, the more they risk their lives. Michael, Jody, and Reggie must face off against the mausoleum's guardians, flying silver spheres that patrol the mausoleum (the double-bladed spheres are equipped with a deadly drill), the dwarves, and the seemingly indestructible Tall Man.

Just below the surface (and like any good horror film), Phantasm exploits fears of death, decay, the afterlife (or lack thereof), and, of course, mausoleums/funeral parlors, and makes them our worst nightmare. Coscarelli also layers in additional fears we experience as children, i.e., losing our parents or losing our brothers and/or sisters (through death or simply growing up and moving out). Coscarelli made Michael the viewpoint character, the character we identify with the most. Michael still mourns the life-altering loss of his parents, Jody is anxious to go back on the road (heís a musician), and to make things worse, Michael has just discovered thetownís most frightening secret.

As a character, Michael is pure wish fulfillment. What teenage boy sitting in a darkened movie theater in 1979 or thereabouts didnít think Michael was the coolest thirteen year old kid to appear in a horror film that year or any other year? Michael may be only thirteen, but he can do whatever he wants and go wherever he wants, riding town on his motorcycle or driving Jodyís 1971 Plymouth Barracuda when heís not under the hood making repairs. But hanging over all this freedom is the loss of Michaelís parents. It doubles the emotional weight that the confrontation with the Tall Man otherwise has. Unfortunately for Michael, Coscarelli takes this wish fulfillment to its logical conclusion, making his deepest fears real in a third-act plot turn that, minus the subtext, could be perceived as trite and clichťd (and not without merit).

But Phantasm is, first and foremost a horror film; moviegoers then and video watchers now, want gore with their horror and for a low-budget film made in 1979, Phantasm delivers, especially when the silver spheres make their appearance. The disgust or repulsion factor goes up a notch once we discover who or what is underneath the midget monksí robes (borrowed shamelessly from George Lucasí then hit, Star Wars IV: A New Hope), what function they serve (itís not good), and what connection they have to the Tall Man. Coscarelli made the Tall Man even more menacing and alien by giving him yellow blood and making this severed appendages have an animated life of their own.

Thatís not to say "Phantasm" doesnít have its share of cheap scares (it does), cheesy special effects (an egregiously awful insect, for example), or sub par acting (no argument there), but those flaws make "Phantasm" more appealing for genre fans. Sure, the nostalgia factor shouldnít and canít be discounted when discussing "Phantasmís" various attributes or faults, at least not for those of us who were lucky enough to see "Phantasm" in 1979 as part of a double feature (the other film turned out to be far less memorable) or even on video in the early 80s one late night with the lights turned off and expectations kept in check. For them (actually us) revisiting "Phantasm" is the equivalent of remembering a long forgotten nightmare.

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