Phantasm (1979)

phantasm poster 1979 movie
7.0 Overall Score
Story: 7/10
Acting: 7/10
Visuals: 8/10

Creepy, gothic feel

Nonsense story doesn't appeal to everyone

Movie Info

Movie Name: Phantasm

Studio: Avco Embassy Pictures

Genre(s): Horror

Release Date(s): March 28, 1979

MPAA Rating: R

phantasm mortuary tall man angus scrimm mike michael baldwin

So…how’s it going, Tall Man?

Mike Pearson (Michael Baldwin)is  being raised by his brother  Jody (Bill Thornbury) after the death of their parents.  When one of his brother’s friends is killed under mysterious circumstances, Mike finds strange goings-on at the town cemetery.  When Mike breaks in to the cemetery’s mausoleum, he discovers strange shrunken hooded creatures and a spherical ball capable of boring into the head of its victims…all at the controls of the mysterious Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who runs the cemetery.  Now, the Tall Man is trying to capture Mike, Jody, and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), and Jody darkest nightmare are becoming real.

Directed, written, and produced Don Coscarelli, Phantasm is a horror thriller.  The movie faced rating challenges and almost received an X-Rating.  The movie garnered mixed to positive reviews and gained a cult following over the years.

phantasm ball sentinel kills man

This is why you always want to check out your employer before you take the job

Phantasm was one of those movies that got a lot of people my age’s attention when the sequel Phantasm II was released a number of years later in 1988.  With a weird looking sequel, I immediately sought out the original and found it crazy with an almost nonsense plot…despite this, I like it and have seen it multiple times.

The story for Phantasm is both a draw and a deterrent.  It is full of oddity and seems to borrow a lot of its storytelling and general feel from Italian horror movies.  The movie begins to set-up a strange mythos, but it also decides not to explain anything to the viewers.  There are flying sphere, little hooded demons, an immortal guy (who can change sex and has body parts that turn into bugs), and a portal to another world…and you just have to accept all of it to enjoy the film.  Coscarelli does not give you much to work with to untangle the plot…the sequels start to really give the story depth (but even then, you cannot expect a lot of streamline coherence from the answers you get).  Coscarelli also has a bit of an obsession with Dune and even creates the box scene in the novel.

phantasm mike finger bug michael baldwin

I hate it when a guy’s fingers transform into a super-powered bug

The cast is fine.  It is a good movie for younger horror viewers because it comes from the perspective of the young teenage Michael Baldwin who feels like a real kid (but also someone who is trying to sort out his own life which has spiraled with the death of his parents).   He is worried about his future and rightfully so with Bill Thornbury not entirely sold on raising his brother.  Reggie Bannister plays the best friend (and extremely active ice cream man), but his role expands through the sequels.  The scene still is of course the Tall Man played by Angus Scrimm who wears too small of suits and risers to make him look taller…Scrimm milks all his scenes and has a great deep voice which is quite intimidating.

Phantasm is quite visual.  It was done on small budget and often it shows, but through Coscarelli’s skill, he gets the most from his money on other scenes.  The look and style of the film (combined with some great music) is creepy, atmospheric, and gothic in feel.  The dwarfs killer dwarfs look like Star Wars’ Jawas, but the film was in production before Star Wars was released.  The violence was rather intense (the ratings board objected to the man killed by the ball wetting himself as he died).  Also, horror fans might recognize the mausoleum which was the same building (the Dunsmir House) used for the haunted house classic Burnt Offerings in 1976 among other films.

phantasm tall man dunsmir house angus scrimm reggie bannister

He’ll get you in the end!

I don’t even pretend to entirely get what Phantasm is about…I don’t know that Coscarelli even knows what it is about.  With the sequels, came out a whole mythology was built around the Tall Man, the other dimension, and the characters, but here it is just unexplained strangeness.  There is the shapeshifting Tall Man who doesn’t like the cold and whose fingers turn into bugs.  There is also the weird, unearthly dimension and the slaves/creatures (from cadavers) who are doing something in it…it doesn’t make sense.  I also like the psychic girl which shows a little obsession with Dune (sick the hand in the box…do not fear, fear is the mind killer).

Phantasm is a trip…and makes you feel like you are tripping.  The movie often throws logic out the window (especially over the course of the whole series), and as a viewer you just have to accept that.  It also feels like a close kinship to Italian horror in look and style.  If you want a strange horror film that you’ll remember, check it out.  The movie might not make much sense, but you’ll enjoy the ride.  Phantasm was followed by Phantasm II in 1988.

Related Links:

Phantasm II (1988)

Phantasm III:  Lord of the Dead (1994)

Phantasm IV:  Oblivion (1998)

Phantasm V:  Ravager (2016)

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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