Phantasm (1979)

Rating: **
Review Date: 7/28/17
Director: Don Coscarelli
Cast: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm

Strange things are happening around town. A mysterious woman in lavender murders a man while having sex with him in a cemetery. Odd cloaked figures are hiding out at a funeral home. A crazy fortune teller makes things materialize and vanish into thin air. A bizarre chrome sphere flies around and kills people by drilling into their skulls. Giant mutant flies grow out of severed fingers. There's a dimensional portal to another world inside a mausoleum. And there's an enigmatic Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who appears to be the source of all the trouble. When Mike (Michael Baldwin) witnesses the Tall Man doing strange things at the cemetery, he and his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) decide to investigate. This gets them into lots of trouble, and forces them to come up with a plan for getting rid of the Tall Man forever.

It's definitely a low budget and amateurish outing, but it has a unique charm. The nightmarish nature of the dimension-shifting Tall Man is reminiscent of Freddy Krueger from the "A Nightmare On Elm Street" series, which would come several years later. The acting is down-to-earth and the characters are grounded in reality, so there's real sense of sincerity about the picture. One of my favorite scenes is when Jody and Reggie are sitting on a porch playing guitars, and they're really doing it. Most of time, cinematic guitar playing looks and sounds incredibly fake, but this scene was the real deal. It seems like such a small and insignificant thing, but I really appreciated the raw authenticity of it. Michael Baldwin's character can be pretty annoying at times, but it's surprising how physical he is and how roughed up he gets. Again, another raw and authentic performance. You could never get away with that these days. He's also thirteen years old in the movie, and drinks beer, rides a motorcycle, drives a car, and carries a gun. That's pretty subversive.

I have to admit that the movie's cult following is lost on me. I didn't find it to be especially scary, but perhaps it's the film's ambiguity and uneasy weirdness that gives it lasting appeal. The film's multiple endings are confusing and force you to question the nature of the story. Was it all a dream? Is it a psychological study in loss, guilt, and depression? Is it a physical manifestation of fear? Is Mike cursed and/or trapped in the prison of his own mind? Will the Tall Man torment him for all eternity? The Tall Man is never explained, and could either be a sinister agent from another planet, a supernatural serial killer, a psychological construct, or any other personification of evil. Likewise, the Lady In Lavender is never explained, and her relationship with the Tall Man is unclear. Does he control her, or is she actually him in a different physical form?

Nearly all of the film's best moments are one-shot ideas that show up briefly and then disappear without explanation. What's the point of the film's iconic deadly sphere? It literally has two scenes in the film and then it's gone. The whole idea of the dimensional portal is never explored and only exists in one scene. And the mutant fly? That was just weird and didn't really serve any purpose. Overall, for a late 1970's horror film, it has enough cheesy thrills and chills to be consistently entertaining, and Jody's 1971 Plymouth Barracuda is super sexy. It's a shame they don't make cars like that anymore.