A number of renowned horror directors didn't get into the business of making scary movies because they had a passion for it. Rather, they learned something Roger Corman figured out back in the 1950s: horror movies can be made cheap and, regardless of quality, they will often turn a profit as their fan base is already built in. Despite the rather cynical means in which many horror films get made, the skill of the director is revealed as they take the plunge, whether it be their first film or just their first horror film, and ultimately it is that skill at telling an interesting visual story that sets apart the true artists.
Don Coscarelli may not be as much of a household name as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper or Sam Raimi; however, his influence on the horror genre is immeasurable. Before he decided to try his hand at frightening an audience Coscarelli made two coming-of-age comedies, Jim, the World's Greatest and Kenny and Company, and along the way met a rather lanky person named Rory Guy, whose day job was writing liner notes for popular albums. He also met a singer named Bill Thornbury and, for his second movie, a young kid named A. Michael Baldwin. Guy, for his role in Phantasm, soon changed his name to a moniker that fit the genre a bit better: Angus Scrimm.
Soon they were all off on the adventure of a lifetime, building sets and figuring out how to do special effects with next to no budget. The actors had to do their own stunts and Coscarelli, despite making two previous films, was unfamiliar with a lot of the Hollywood tricks to keep everyone safe. So, with fingers crossed and a lot of imagination, he set out to make the movie he hoped would turn a profit and allow him to continue in the profession he loved.
Michael (Baldwin) lives with his older brother Jody (Thornbury). Their parents have died in a car accident within the last year, and, though Jody knows he should take care of Michael, he is growing restless to get on with his music career, a dream shared with local ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and another friend named Tommy (Bill Cone). Tommy is found dead, apparently of suicide, and Michael spies on the funeral - only to encounter strange robed dwarfs and witness the mortician (Angus Scrimm) lift Tommy's coffin into the hearse all by himself.
Michael is unable to convince his brother that something weird is going on, but eventually there's enough evidence to convince Jody, even though he insists that he and Reggie should be the ones to take care of things. Unfortunately, there is no safe place for Michael, as the Tall Man has set his sites on him.
The original version of Phantasm was over three hours long, but Coscarelli managed to chop that in half before release. A good portion of what was removed has shown up in the sequels, largely in Phantasm IV: Oblivion, but what is left tells the story without getting off on too many tangents. The only problem is that characters that were obviously developed further in the longer cut are barely given any screen time in the finished version, so there are times when it feels that, while many background characters should be more important, they drift out of the film quickly.
As a result of the bizarre pacing resulting from the cuts the story develops a dreamlike feel once it gets going. The Tall Man seems to be everywhere, often stalking Michael both in his fantasies and in the real world. Although a bit slow at the start, once it does get moving, it doesn't let up. Coscarelli keeps the tension on and, except for a couple situations that were more ambitious than the movie had a budget for, surprisingly pulls off some great special effects - the most memorable being a brain-drilling flying sphere that acts as a sort of guard dog for the Tall Man.
As stated before the actors did their own stunts, including standing up and firing through a moving car, going through what appears to be regular glass instead of the sugar glass normally use to prevent injury and, at one point, showing how to escape a locked room with a hammer and a shotgun shell. Coscarelli himself has stated that it is a wonder no one got seriously hurt or killed during the filming of Phantasm.
While the acting is all over the place - these were not professionals, but largely friends of Coscarelli and his family - Angus Scrimm just walking down the street in broad daylight is enough to raise goosebumps. Most of his performance as the Tall Man is physical, with only a few lines of dialogue. When he does speak he is able to put so much anger and hatred into one word, especially after it starts to become clear that Michael might just be the one to beat him. This also has one of the coolest cars of any horror film although, like with any Mopar product, there seems to be more scenes of them fixing it rather than driving.
The movie did make a profit as Coscarelli had hoped, which led to him making a larger budget film that did okay at the box office but became a big hit in the 1980s on cable: The Beastmaster. That eventually gave him what he needed to film sequels to Phantasm, even though the quality and budget fell off again toward the end. It also influenced a number of movies that came after it. There is more than a little of the Tall Man in Freddy Krueger, and sequences where pictures start moving in the Stephen King's novel It were certainly inspired by the scene in the antique shop. The movie also influenced the name of a character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Captain Phasma's armor reminded J.J. Abrams of the sphere from the Phantasm movies. The movie also maintains that coming-of-age vibe from Coscarelli's previous non-horror work and, though cleaned up quite a bit, Steven Spielberg's '80s films owe this a bit of gratitude as well.
Time: 89 minutes
Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm
Director: Don Coscarelli