The Frozen Ghost sucked, and much to our chagrin, the next movie on the list is another Inner Sanctum Mystery. That’s too masochistic, even for me. So I told my wife “Hey, you pick the movie. You do it. We watch whatever you want to watch.” and she said “I don’t care. Stop talking to me. Put something, anything on.” With carte blanche secured I immediately chose Don Coscarelli’s 1979 indie horror classic Phantasm.
My supportive, loving and tolerant wife gifted to me a handful of horror movie posters last Christmas. One of them has a bunch of little scratch-off squares like a lottery tab. Each square corresponds to a horror movie everyone should see. I don’t entirely trust the poster as a barometer of taste or as a guide to classics because it has squares for both The Conjuring and Annabelle. You should’t get to double dip franchise’s movie poster, that’s not cool. Anyway, we’re treating it like a horror movie Bingo card. We get to scratch off a square only if we’ve both seen the movie. Its messy but it’s also fun to see what the poster designers thought were the most iconic images from the film and then hide them behind the scratch-off material. Phantasm is on that poster and in the book 101 Horror Movies you Must See Before You Die.
Here’s the premise, two young men are mourning the death of their brother, found dead in a graveyard from an apparent suicide. A series of awkward scenes and barely justified transitions later we learn that something creepy is going on in the mausoleum where he’s entombed. The extremely tall and intimidating caretaker known only as the Tall Man behaves suspiciously enough to catch the attention of the younger brother Michael.
The plot progresses through a series of seemingly unrelated scares and special effects gags. In one scene the villainous Tall Man’s fingers are cut off and spew a thick yellow blood, the disembodied fingers then turn into a weird bat like insect that can’t be killed by a garbage disposal. *Shrug* OK? In other scenes a buxom woman seduces young men in graveyards only to transform into the Tall Man and stabs the would be lovers to death. Why? A spiked sphere flies through a mausoleum until it impales itself in a victim’s skull and drills their brains till they shoot out the back of the sphere like a firehose. Hilarious.
Phantasm appears to get a lot of credit for successfully harnessing a dreamlike atmosphere where conventional rational and filmmaking logic don’t really apply. Hence the name Phantasm. I have no ground on which to besmirch Don Coscarelli’s name but masquerading this film as a study on nightmares seems like a con to cover up the amateurishness of DIY filmmaking. The boring linear plot isn’t difficult to follow but the scares seem like Don Coscarelli threw every low budget special effect into a sequence to pad out a run time. Two thirds of the way through we’re handed a half-assed explanation suggesting every weird thing we’ve seen so far has been in service to an alien plot to turn our human dead into robed slaves on another planet but that only lasts until it’s revealed that everything we saw was actually a dream, or was it? I couldn’t care less.
The disjointed strangeness of the narrative doesn’t detract from why Phantasm is important. Don Coscarelli might not have made a movie that holds up after 40 years but he did contribute to a storied lineage of low budget horror filmmakers. With Phantasm, he demonstrated that your budget is only limited by your imagination and there are a lot of ways to enhance the production value of your film on little to no money. Fake blood too predictable? Make it yellow. Need to create a barren alien wasteland without any money? Just shoot a big wide shot of a desert but make the sky red in post. It worked for Robinson Crusoe on Mars. As I watched it became evident to me that Phantasm is in perfect company with the titans of low budget independent horror Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Evil Dead (1981). George Romero laid the foundation, Tobe Hooper put up the walls and Sam Rami painted them with blood. Or so I thought. Now I see Phantasm belongs right between Hooper and Rami in this house of horrors. Maybe it’s the appliances? The roof? The metaphor doesn’t work as well with four examples.