‘Phantasm’ still phantastic almost 35 years after its original release

Watching Phantasm, Don Coscarelli’s eerily effective horror film from 1979, is still a surreal experience. The strange genre flick, featuring a career-defining performance from Angus Scrimm, is one of the better examples of late-1970s horror. The plot is wholly original, the acting is surprisingly believable and the tension is taut. Phantasm is a winner, even for 2012 audiences.

Scrimm plays a mysterious mortician known as The Tall Man. Just looking at this gaunt, peculiar man can send chills up the spine. He’s dressed in black, sometimes has an arched eyebrow and his arms seem impossibly extended, ready to grab unsuspecting victims. What his motives are remain unclear throughout much of the film, and this only adds to his mysterious aura.

Michael Baldwin plays our hero, a young kid named Mike who suspects something has gone awry at the local mausoleum. His brother (Bill Thornbury) picks up on the strangeness as well, and it’s up to them to save their hometown from the nefarious plans of The Tall Man.

As genre fans know, there are many surprising developments in this 88-minute classic. From a silver ball with a deadly drill to a cadre of hooded creatures that act like henchmen for The Tall Man, Phantasm finds its strength in the unexpected. There’s never been a movie like this, and no director has dared to imitate Coscarelli’s work.

Is it perfect? No, if it’s judged by overall cinematic standards. There are some cheesy one-liners, and several of the characters fall into those common genre traps that instigate giggles in 2012. But as a time capsule film from 1979, Phantasm is just about perfect.

The only parallel that can be made, in my opinion, is with the music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. To my ears, it sounds oddly familiar to John Carpenter’s Halloween, which was released a year before Phantasm. Of course, Halloween’s iconic music sounds just like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which was released one year earlier.

Phantasm resulted in three sequels, most of them highly regarded by horror fans. The second, third and fourth parts may prove to be quality entertainment, but is there any way to match the oddity and uniqueness of the original? The “dread” level skyrockets when the audience has no idea what to expect next.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Phantasm

  • 1979

  • Written and directed by Don Coscarelli

  • Starring Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury and Angus Scrimm

  • Running time: 88 minutes

  • Rated R

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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