Written & Directed By: Don Coscarelli
A. Michael Baldwin
When young director Don Coscarelli set out to make a low-budget horror film in the early 1970s, he could not have imagined that he was giving birth to what we now consider a genre classic, as well as creating an iconic movie monster that continues to chill audiences to this very day. Set in an idyllic small American town, “Phantasm” focuses on a young boy (Mike), and how his life is changed when a sinister undertaker takes residence in the local mortuary. After a friend of his is murdered, Mike discovers that the undertaker (quickly dubbed “The Tall Man” due to his extraordinary height and unreal strength) is actually an evil graverobber, who travels from town to town ravaging cemeteries and shipping the dead back to his own ghastly dimension where he transforms them into his slaves. It becomes up to Mike, his brother Jody, and their friend Reggie to stop the Tall Man before he turns their town into just another empty graveyard.
Growing up, I lived in a house beside a cemetery. The first time I saw Phantasm, I was immediately able to associate with the film: the vast graveyard depicted in the film was so similar to the one just next door it was uncanny. From then on, I would walk through the cemetery at night with my cousins and tell them stories of the Tall Man and his army of deadly silver spheres (the end product of the bodies he ransacked). ‘Phantasm’ gave a new chilling atmosphere of horror to my nightly walks, dodging inbetween gravestones, and imagining that behind each one the Tall Man might be waiting for me, or worse yet, digging up the recently deceased. It is because of this that ‘Phantasm’ holds such a special place in my heart as a horror fan, and because of this that I used to review films and post on online forums under the name “The Tall Man”. It was an influential horror film in my life, and one that I could truly associate with at the time.
It has it’s problems, though, like all films. It does have a slight tendency to drag at times, and the special effects are lacking, by today’s standards. Where other early horror films like ‘Halloween’ executed effective lighting techniques to further enhance the suspence, ‘Phantasm’ is a rougher looking picture, and certainly not as scary. But what it lacks in all-out terror, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. It is not an overly violent film — most of it’s special effects rely on the imagination to make them terrifying. It is a surrealistic nightmare, which draws you into a labyrinth of bizarre and chilling events all taking place in Anytown, U.S.A.
It is easy to enjoy Phantasm, if you approach it in the right way, with the right expectations. It’s low-budget look and occasionally silly special effects will turn off many filmgoers, but if you are able to look past these things and appreciate the film on a deeper level, you will no doubt see (as many “phans” of the film have already seen) there is much to be enjoyed. It features a great story with a memorable soundtrack and memorable characters. If you have not already experienced ‘Phantasm’, I urge you to do so as soon as possible.