Phantasm (1979) Review

The thing I remember most about my first viewing of Phantasm was the odd cassette style case the VHS video cassette was in, it was similar to those that tape cassettes are stored in and was unusual even for the time.
I only had a handful of videos like this and Phantasm is one that I’ve always regretted selling when DVD became popular.
It was a matter of space, and DVD was far easier to store than bulky VHS…
But still…
I was probably in my early teens when I watched the film the first time, it was a weekend and I think it was summer. At least I remember the world outside the living room window was bright and the sky was a brilliant blue.
I know England is known for its rain, but when the sun shines it really does with a vengeance.
Either everyone else had gone out or my mother was in her workshop…
..My mother is a seamstress and works constantly…
…so I had the place to myself.
I did not know what to expect with this film called Phantasm, often before I watched a film rumors on its content had found their way through school or one of my uncles had told me exaggerated tales on the horrors they produced; but with Phantasm I’d heard nothing.
So I hit play and watched it cold.
After watching it I understood why no one spoke of it. Either they had not seen it because it didn’t contain all the gore and excess common in films of the time, or they simply didn’t like it… or perhaps understand it.
Phantasm was one of the most unique films I had seen to that point, and it remains one of the most unique films I have seen these thirty or so years later.
I didn’t understand it though.
So I watched it again.
The second viewing didn’t help so I tried again.
In the first week of owning the film I probably watched it the better part of two dozen times and I was still none the wiser, but what I did understand is that it was something special and unrepeatable. It was like an average person trying to express the thoughts of a genius and getting it just right enough for you to see the magnificence of it, but still not understand it.
In the years since I’ve grown to understand the film a great deal better, and the common interpretation of the film, that the Tall Man is mass abducting the dead to use as slaves in some far off world, seems to be the most readily understandable interpretation; though it isn’t the only one.
At its core Phantasm isn’t really a horror film, it bears a much greater resemblance paranoid science fiction and when examined it seems that there are no elements to the film that does not fit squarely into the science fiction category.
The Tall Man, the films main villain, is not a supernatural character, at least he isn’t in the colloquial sense of the term, he’s an alien emissary collecting the dead as slaves for some alien world… or is he?
What Phantasm does extremely well is signpost meaning without actually adhering to that meaning in any real way. Which I suppose is my way of saying that it says “this is what I mean” while following that up with a smile and a wink.
Theres a good chance that Mike, the films 13 year old protagonist, is just a young boy dealing with multiple deaths in his life. His parents have been gone for some time and halfway through the film he also looses his big brother, who has been his whole world since their parents death.
In many ways this is the interpretation I prefer, because whether Mike’s experience happen in reality or only in his head, whether the Tall Man is a man-shaped monster from another world or does not affect this interpretation in any way. Yes, it could be argued that Mike’s grief has pushed him into complete fantasy to give it all meaning, but you could just as easily argue that Mike’s grief, any fantasy derived from this grief and the Tall Man’s mission are not mutually exclusive notions.
By which I mean that just because he might be seeing some things that aren’t there does not mean that some of them may not also be real.
Okay, so that sentence made about as much sense as the movie did; so I’ll consider it an accurate statement.
Perhaps…
May be not…
Thats the thing about Phantasm and the sequels that followed it a few years later, you could discuss your thoughts concerning their meaning but much like our heroes experiences in the films, viewers thoughts are pretty subjective ones.
The film ends up being a meditation on death and loss, a kind of fantastical encounter session for the bereaved. The Tall Man is obviously Death, whether he is of extraterrestrial origin or conjured up by the mind of a 13 year old not-with-standing. Jodie, Mikes brother is the generic “loved one” that we are desperate not to loose and Mike is us; lost in a world without much meaning without those we love.
The films dream logic in which a character can be dead one moment just to turn up unharmed the next could be seen as the wish fulfillment of youth, or perhaps the nightmare in which we get what we need but not what we want. It speaks to the lack of permanency we all face but that especially affects the young; dependency is not a good bed-fellow to unexpected change.
When Phantasm was being made it seems that the writer/director, Don Coscarelli, had overshot and needed to trim vast amounts of footage to create a viewable film, and it was this – apparently – that caused the choppy dream logic of the film.
I’m sure that the film needed extensive editing, theres no reason to doubt Coscarelli’s word on this, but I do question how much of the dream-logic was due to this editing. Unless Phantasm was originally a movie of truly epic running time it seems unlikely that many of the dramatic shifts would be there unless they were intended to be from the beginning.
Phantasm is certainly a film that I would love to see an early work-print of, if it is true that the dream logic comes from this extensive reedit then the original film must have been a very different film to behold. But I can’t help but think that there was more going on in Don Coscarelli’s mind when he conjured up the script to Phantasm.
When critics originally thought of as sloppy film making is anything but, much like Night of the Living Dead released ten years earlier Coscarelli threw together things that most did not think compatible at the time. Phantasm is an existentialist horror movie and its moment to moment story is far less important to the viewer than the emotional journey the protagonists take.
This approach is not uncommon in film, but it’s far more familiar with those who watch the likes of Yashiro Ozu than it is to those who watch pulp horror from the 70’s and 80’s, and things that critics readily accept in one type of film they find very difficult to accept in another, lets say, less prestigious type of movie.
The horror, and to a slightly lesser degree sci-fi, genres are held to different standards and to be noticed in these genres a film maker must exceed expectations to a phenomenal degree before any credit is given to them. I think we can all compile a list of genre movies that we think deserves recognition over the ones we routinely see win awards in the mainstream; and I think we’re all aware it’ll never happen.
What is often dismissed as inexperience or clumsiness in a genre movie would be lauded as an inspired artistic choice in a more (quote/unquote) prestigious film.
Thankfully Phantasm found its audience and has become accepted as a modern classic, proving to me that horror fans are far more sophisticated than most give them credit for being. The continued interest in this long running series of films, probably over now due to the passing of the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm has shown how little critics know and how little we should defer to them concerning the films we watch.
Yeah, in case you were wondering; that means even armchair critics like me.
With the idea of replacing Scrimm in the role being unthinkable, and with the idea of rebooting the series or, God forbid, remaking Phantasm equally so it seems that the series is finally over. After almost forty years the Tall Man has finally been defeated and I couldnt be less happy about it.
I upload this video on the 39th Anniversary of Phantasm and barely a year after the death of Angus Scrimm, the man who gave us one of the most enduring images modern horror has produced. But like I said, don’t take my word for it; if you’ve never seen the film then go find yourself a copy of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm and see for yourself.

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