★★★ / ★★★★
Those who wish to insert square peg logic in a round hole are certain to be perplexed by “Phantasm,” a surreal, dream-like horror picture by writer-director Don Coscarelli. It is confident in what it is supposed to be so it does not bother to slow down and explain anything; it expects the audience to be able to keep up because not only are we intelligent, we possess similar fears that its characters have: loss of loved ones, abandonment, facing uncertainty and the unknown. It presents paranormal phenomena as they are: sometimes inexplicable, sometimes scary, sometimes curious, sometimes commentaries or physical manifestations of what’s unfolding in our own psyches. It is a film rich of ideas.
It begins with a thirteen-year-old named Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) who witnesses a mortician (Angus Scrimm) carry a coffin on his own without effort. Instead of proceeding with its burial, The Tall Man puts it back into the hearse. What is to be done with the body? Proceeding sequences follow this formula: a boy observes a seemingly strange event and he—and we—interpret what might be going on. At times there are overt answers—like what happens to the corpses The Tall Man collects—but there are other instances when there are none—like why the Tall Man takes a specific form of a woman (“Lady in Lavender” played by Kathy Lester) to lure men into Morningside Cemetery. The unpredictability of what will or won’t be explained adds to the mystique and joy of the experience. Cue the creepy but terrific soundtrack.
Remove the supernatural aspect of the story completely and therein lies an interesting relationship between two brothers, Mike and Jody (Bill Thornbury). Their parents have died recently, and Mike has developed an irrational fear—or is it?—that it is Jody’s turn to go away next. His solution is to follow his big brother everywhere he goes. Literally everywhere: at home, at a bar, in the cemetery—his eyes must be on his brother all the time. The work is a horror picture on the surface but deep down it is a story of loss and trauma.
Amongst the insanity that unfolds, the writer-director ensures that we have an appreciation of how the brothers are like around one another. We are shown Jody’s kindness and patience, his courage, how he is a role model for Mike. And so we understand why Jody is important to Mike outside of the fact that Jody is the only family left for the lonely teenager. Naturally, the two must team up against an antagonist that is beyond anything they’ve ever faced. But even then the villain itself… does not truly fit the mold of a typical antagonist.
The figure we come to know as The Tall Man minds his own business. When one really thinks about it, it is Mike and Jody who consistently get in the way of The Tall Man’s daily and nightly activities. At least initially, the mysterious mortician does not wish to go after them or their friends. Most of the time he is on the defensive: to protect whatever it is he does—which I will not reveal. When ignoring the problem seems to worsen it, attempting to silence the pesky brothers—always breaking into mausoleum, making mess, causing trouble for the dwarves (yes, there are dwarves)—is the last resort. This is an amusing, unexpected, and creative perspective. It is not just about delivering violence and gore.
“Phantasm” may not boast the best acting. The skill of editing is even questionable at times. Blood looks like cranberry juice. But it goes to show how inspired ideas and passion can take a work quite far. There is always something curious, nightmarish waiting at the end of a typical setup like when one goes down the basement, opens the front door, opens a casket, peers into a strange apparatus, flicks a lighter in the dark… Coupled with an increasing sense of dread, its images might be inexplicable on occasion but they stick in the mind and stay there.