| Phantasm





Don Coscarelli

USA, 1979


Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 04 October 2004

Source Columbia Tristar VHS

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Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm spawned three sequels, and each film in the series sports the image of a metallic, self-propellant sphere on the cover. Descriptively, the films appear to be about this murderous orb, containing a modest armory with the variety of a Swiss Army knife. In the first film the sphere appears 37 minutes in, exits shortly thereafter, and leaves Phantasm’s remainder the task of supplying something even comparably horrific.

The orb’s screen entrance is a pièce de résistance I will not ruin, although it will please those in the Tom Savini school of anatomy. The remaining characters each fulfill horror clichés with what appears to be some sort of obligation. There is a pair of brothers: Mike, cursed with an intense investigative curiosity unique to teenagers in horror films, and the dumbly promiscuous Jody; a looming “tall man”; and a few expendable friends. The film opens, for one, with a sex scene in an unnaturally well-lit cemetery that climaxes with a death. In addition to an incongruous amount of scare chords, there are over-enunciated profanities (“Warning shots are bullshit.”), a minimalist synthesizer score, and an overall lack of judgment in the vulnerable, survivalist human characters. Jody, prior to the film’s modestly virtuosic finale, loads a shotgun, cocks it, tosses it to Mike, and then explains the safety procedures of using the weapon. Such actions come to lend the film an air of camp, but certainly not one that spoils the fun – comedy, after all, is one of the permanent ingredients of a horror film.

To its credit Phantasm’s elements of neo-Gothic horror are welcomely ambiguous and essentially frightening. The aforementioned “tall man,” the apparent proprietor of a mausoleum and one capable of conjuring fear with individual syllables, is flanked by a number of diminutive minions, dwarves clothed in monk-ish woven robes and with the voices of rabid hounds. The horror and deaths they facilitate are left unexplained, and a sequel is left adequately desired at the film’s open ending.

Don Coscarelli has his most accomplished film in Bubba Ho-Tep, which also amalgamates genres with little vested interest in the components’ compatibility. Coscarelli’s debut – as with any in horror – is not the best display of his horror/sci-fi aesthetic, but it is enjoyable as an exercise of innovative intentions, if not outright horrific.

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