Sunday, June 27, 2010

Tall Tales: Phantasm

Don Coscarelli has always been considered one of the most underrated horror directors of the last thirty years.  His works have been unique and varied, ranging from Survival Quest to Bubba Ho-Tep or The Beastmaster.  Of course, what got his name on the map- and kept it there for a while- was the Phantasm series.  Filmed in 1977, the movie didn't see a release until 1979, something that would be par for the course in his career.  Today's film is the first part in that series, which is also notable for making Angus Scrimm a big star.  Never mind that he was about 50 at the time.  It tells the tale of a trio of men in a town that is besieged by a mysterious Tall Man.  What are his evil goals?  They will seek to find out just that, even if it kills them.  Out of the series, this one is the most respected, so I may have to restrain myself, lest I be bogged down with attacks.  Then again, when has that bothered?  Get out your ben wa balls for my review of...
Our story begins with a man having sex with a mysterious woman in a graveyard.  Man, after surviving Night of the Living Dead, that lady got a strange fetish!  Seriously though, the guy gets stabbed to death by the woman, whose face subsequently turns into a freaky old man's!  If I had a quarter for every time that happened....never mind.  After a wipe, we see a man arrive in town in his muscle car, so he's definitely not compensating for anything.  He's in town for the funeral of the man from the beginning, who was the third part in his trio of friends.  The remaining person is Reggie, a balding ice-cream man.  Fun fact: the actor playing 'Reggie' is also named Reggie.  Don Coscarelli- master of the macabre and lazy at making character names!  The man also sees his younger brother, who would go on to be the main focus of the series.  While the older pair are at the funeral, the brother follows them to the cemetery.  For no clear reason, he crashes his bike on nothing and stops to look around the place.  He must have run over the invisible monster from Doctor Who!  He sees Reggie and his brother drop the friend's body off in front of the grave and leave.  A moment later, the weird old man from the beginning shows up and one-hand palms the coffin, taking it for himself.  Note to self: make sure my body is buried on time!
After this, the young man tries to tell his brother, but he doesn't buy it.  There's a bit of family strife, you see, because the older brother wants to drive around and not be tied down...but he's the kid's guardian.  There's a limit to how cool that mindset makes you, buddy.  As we see, the kid follows him around all the time because he's afraid that the brother will leave him again.  During this part, we get some stuff that seems like filler, including Reggie and the brother playing the guitar together and using a tuning fork.  To the film's credit, this does actually come up.  There's also an odd sub-plot where the younger brother sees a psychic, puts his hand in a box and is told to confront his fears.  I'd feel ashamed if I made a Seven joke here, so I won't.  The old man- who will go on to be known as The Tall Man- begins showing up in our hero's dreams.  Afterward, the kid follows his brother to a bar and, subsequently, his attempt to hook up with  blond in the cemetery.  Luckily for the guy, his brother is chased by a mysterious dwarf and interrupts their make-out session.  Man, how often do I get to write a sentence like that?  The brother chases off the kid, but finds his date gone.  When he checks up on her the next day at the bar, nobody remembers her.  Hm.
Eventually, all three of our characters get on the same page after the psychic and the girl with her earlier are kidnapped by The Tall Man.  Our heroes have a run-in with The Tall Man in his hearse, promptly shooting at it to no real effect.  The thing seems to have no driver, but they'll learn a bit later that it's actually a dwarf that drives it!  Again- how often do I get to write sentences like that?  They go to the mausoleum- don't do it, there's an evil spirit there- and find out a bit about The Tall Man's plans.  He kidnaps the recently-dead and takes them to some weird pocket-dimension, which you access via to metal rods in the ground.  This is realized when Reggie has a flashback to the tuning fork scene and figures it out.  Mind you, I could have figured that out without the flashback, but whatever.  To make the creatures fit, he shrinks them down into midgets and puts them in a bunch of boxes.  Mind you, the sequels attempt to explains this stuff more, but it really works better here.  The trio work together in light of this now-explained threat and kill him...only for the kid to wake up.  Apparently, most of what happened was a dream and the brother (Jodie) had been dead the whole time.  Before I cry 'bullshit,' The Tall Man bursts through a window and grabs the kid.
Well, after all of the hype, the movie is pretty good.  There are a lot of interesting ideas put to use here, including the whole thing with the evil mortician and the dwarfs.  A lot of this stuff is never really explained, even after three subsequent films.  Now, with that said, The Tall Man does make a great, menacing character and his stuff feels very iconic.  Even with the older film-stock (I watched it streaming on Netflix, so there may be a better version), a lot of it managed to feel pretty fresh.  I wish the ending could have been a little bit more logical, but I get what he was going for.  The whole thing feels a bit like one of Fulci's films which tries to make you think that you're in some sort of waking dream.  In that regard, the ending is very satisfying.  I certainly understand why many people find it to be pointlessly-confusing though.  The acting, for the most part, is not that great, but it gets the job done.  The actor who plays the kid- A. Michael Baldwin- doesn't really sell me here.  I have certainly seen far worse actors his age or older.  As a whole Phantasm lived up to my expectations, but didn't quite exceed them.  Considering all the hype this film has, that's still a pretty damn good compliment.
Up next, Don follows up this film with a more action-packed and straight-forward sequel.  Of course, it only took him about ten years to do so. Stay tuned...


  1. Gayest movie ever made. Not an attack on the film, just a plain statement. So rife in latent homosexuality. Ive never been a fan of Phantasm, but not for that reason. I just dont get it, nor do I really want to get it. Way overrated in my book, though Coscarelli's directing skills far exceed his writing skills here.

  2. I think you may want to make a correction: Stuart Gordon wrote and directed "Stuck". Otherwise, good review. Saying this series is akin to something Fulci would have made is not far off, I'd say. I had no problem with nothing being explained in this first film in the series, the atmosphere more than makes up for was the sequels that really bogged things down when they made less sense as they went on and created more questions than answers.

  3. Post corrected. I got my obscure and underrated horror directors mixed up for a moment.

    To Carl, I never got any gay subtext. I guess my subtext radar is out of synch. For the record, I think the 'gayest movie ever' is a title that goes to one of David DeCoteau's films.

    To Lee, I can see your point on them not explaining things. It just bugs me a bit that they set so much up and don't really explain much of it until 'Phantasm III' or 'IV.' If I were a fan of the series then, I would have been pissed. It was about twenty years later when those films came out!