DIEmonds in the Rough: Phantasm (1979)

phantasm-posterWelcome to another installment of DIEmonds in the Rough, where we take a look at horror movies, games and stories that are less than perfect, but contain some real nuggets of awesomeness.

Today’s subject could easily be the poster child for this column. A beautiful, sometimes terrifying mess of a movie that birthed a horror icon. I’m talking about the 1979 cult classic, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the passing of Angus Scrimm, whose on screen persona the Tall Man has been one of horror’s most iconic villains for the past 35 years. Scrimm was a fascinating individual outside of the horror movie scene, but he will forever be remembered for bringing horror fans the Tall Man. This week I went back and watched my Phantasm special edition DVD, and it was a bittersweet trip down memory lane, as Angus Scrimm provided an introduction to the film. It was clear that he’s had just as much fun playing the Tall Man as audiences have had being scared by him for more than three decades.

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So, let’s talk about Phantasm. Made for about $300,000 over the course of a year or so, Phantasm was written, filmed, directed, edited and produced by Don Coscarelli. It’s low budget filmmaking at its best and worst, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Phantasm is a truly unique vision in a genre that is known for doing the same things over and over again.

The main premise of Phantasm is that 13-year old Jody Pearson discovers that something is very amiss in his small Oregon town. While he’s spying on his older brother at a funeral, he notices the tall, creepy mortician pick up a coffin by himself and throw it into the back of a hearse. The more Jody tries to investigate what’s going on at Morningside Cemetery, the more he draws the attention of the Tall Man.

I don’t want to spoil the plot of the whole movie, as it really is a cult classic that needs to be seen by every horror fan. But I do have to mention a few spoilers to talk about the good and the bad, so be forewarned.

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The Rough
From a narrative standpoint, Phantasm barely holds together. It’s all over the place, more a series of loosely connected scenes than a start-to-finish story. The acting is not great, which makes perfect sense since the cast were all pretty much unknowns, many of them actually friends of Coscarelli. The characters will often do things that don’t make sense (even more than in most horror films), just to get them from point A to point B for the next scene.

Also, the level to which Jody stalks his brother Mike is downright creepy in and of itself. It’s presented to us that Jody is fearful of Mike leaving town, and Jody is still dealing with the death of his parents from a couple years prior. But he will not let Mike out of his sight, and instead of a clingy little brother, he sometimes comes across as obsessive.

BUT, in many ways the choppiness of the movie plays right into the dream aspect of it. Phantasm is a movie that makes you question what’s real and what’s just in the character’s heads, so the fact that the movie is all over the place can be justified if you’re willing to go along for the ride. And what a ride it is.

The DIEmonds
Oh, there are some DIEmonds in this one. Let’s start with the Tall Man himself. From the moment he appears onscreen, he’s terrifying. Whether he’s appearing out of nowhere, morphing into a beautiful woman, or tossing coffins around like beanbags, he exudes both power and evil.

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Another thing I love about Phantasm is just how flat-out weird it is. Coscarelli just let his imagination run wild, and where other movies would stop with a gag or sequence, he carries it two steps further. There’s a particular series of events that begins with the Tall Man chasing Jody around the museum and ends with one of the weirdest creature encounters you’ll ever see. It’s wonderful.

And then, there are the Sentinels.

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While these little silver spheres of death were not given their name until a couple movies later, they became icons of their own in this film. We first see the spheres in the mausoleum at Morningside, patrolling the halls for anyone that isn’t on team Tall Man. The signature scene of this movie is our introduction to the spheres, and it’s become on of the most memorable scenes in horror. In fact, it was considered so graphic at the time, that the movie was originally given an ‘X’ rating before the ratings board reconsidered. The scene ranks up there with the Halloween III kid scene in terms of how disturbing it is.

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Ironically, the Sentinels don’t even feature all that much in this first movie. Their role and their lore are greatly expanded as the series goes on. But this is the one that started it all, and a glorious start it is.

Last, but definitely not least, is the score. Phantasm has one of the best themes you will ever hear in a horror film, and over the course of the movie it’s remixed and used in a variety of ways. I frequently listen to this score while writing, and once you hear it, you will not be able to forget it.

Phantasm is easily one of my all-time favorites, for both its weirdness and its uniqueness. I can’t wait for Phantasm: Ravager to come out (hopefully in 2016), so we can all see the Tall Man one more time.

I’ll leave you with these fun facts: J.J. Abrams is such a huge fan of the original Phantasm that he helped Coscarelli put together a 4K restoration of the movie that should arrive in 2016. He also named a character in the new Star Wars movie after the film–Captain Phasma.

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Pay your respects.