Phantasm (1978) Review (R)

Ambitious and inspired, Phantasm is one of the best low budget horror flicks ever made. Don Coscarelli is a master of doing a lot with very little and here manages to create a very original story. Iconic even. It’s an entertaining ride.

A. Michael Baldwin plays Jody, a kid being raised by his brother Mike (Bill Thornbury), who spends his time riding his dirt bike and hanging out in the local graveyard. Right at the beginning he begins to notice things aren’t right at the graveyard and that  a mysterious (and very creepy looking) man (played by Anguss Scrimm) is up to no good.

At first his brother and friend Reggie, the uh… the ice cream man… don’t believe him, but when people start dropping like flies, they all converge on the mausoleum to get some answers. That’s about all you need to know.

I don’t think I can explain the story and have it make sense. There’s weird puppet bugs and Jawas  and shape changing and nightmares and interdimensional gates and flying metal balls equipped with power tools….  To be honest, I don’t know if it actually makes any sense even to the director. All I know is it works for me. The definition of Phantasm is ‘an illusory mental image’ and the film lives up to that in some way or another.

Jody (Thornbury), Reg (Reggie Bannister), and Mike (A. Michael Baldwin)...

It’s not a ‘trippy’ movie, but I would say that it’s something like childhood dreams and fears.  Jody is never quite sure of when he’s awake or dreaming. Coscarelli’s script kind of alludes to the ‘fear’ part early on, but I really couldn’t tell you if there’s a payoff at the end. I like the ending, but the elements don’t quite add up.

I like that the film doesn’t try to explain itself, though, and that it sometimes jumps in editing so that you’re not quite sure whats going on. Thats usually a bad thing, but in this case it’s effective in disguising what is really happening. I just enjoy the explanations that the characters give and that it’s just speculation on their part. The only thing of importance is that the Tall Man and his diminuitive feral minions are killing people and Jody, Mike and Reggie are next.

Maybe Coscarelli's greatest gift to the world...

It has scares, but is far more interested in just having fun than other more serious 70s horror flicks like the Exorcist or The Omen.  It does manage to create a  somewhat ominous atmosphere for a low budget horror flick, but it allows for seeing through the eyes of its young protagonist. Part of that is from the shot selection and editing, but an even bigger part might be the distinctively creepy soundtrack. It’s a horror film that I find myself coming back to every so often.  I think this film is best if you see it first at a young age. The film probably owes some of its success to that.  Nostalgia probably also plays a part in its continued popularity.  But its a great low budget horror film success story. If you’re a fan of horror films (or would like to make one), this is a must see. As I said, it’s a lot of fun for horror fans.

Phantasm made my Best 10 Films of 1978.

4.5 of 5

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