Phantasm is a Terror Beyond Imagination
Phantasm, directed by Don Coscarelli, is a science fiction horror film from 1979 that revolves around two brothers and the mystery surrounding a figure known only as the Tall Man. Set sometime after their parents’ deaths, the 13-year-old Mike is being raised alone by his older brother Jody. After the burial of a friend, Mike spots the Tall Man lifting the 500 LB casket into a hearse by himself, stealing the body from its grave. When Jody doesn’t believe him, Mike breaks into the funeral home in the dead of night to discover the truth for himself. What he finds there is something entirely beyond the imagination. The Tall Man is stealing corpses to convert them into dwarfish slaves! When Mike brings his brother proof of the strange conspiracy, they put their lives at risk trying to put an end to the Tall Man’s scheme.
The whole film is a bit bizarre, but I believe that was Coscarelli’s point. I will warn you now this article contains spoilers. Feel free to skip to the last paragraph for my final rating if you don’t want any. You find out at the film’s end that it was all in Mike’s dream. Or not. It’s left ambiguous. The need to stop the Tall Man pushes the film forward, but the resolution may leave something to be desired. We are given no formal explanation of what the Tall Man is, but there are indications that he could be extra-terrestrial. The Tall Man uses flying orbs that latch onto victim’s faces and then proceeds to drill into their skulls and shoot their brains out. These spheres are never explained either, but perhaps they don’t need to be. They make for an exciting and unique feature that stands out from all other horror films. Aside from the too ambiguous ending, I wasn’t upset at the lack of explanation. I thought it was okay that we were left as clueless to the menace as the characters were. That being said, there needed to be a better setup for the ending.
There is a problem with consistency concerning two plot points that are presented to be important. The first is Mike’s fear that Jody will move away without him. He is apprehensive about this, and it is set up as if it could be a source of tension between the brothers, but it is never brought up again after it’s first discussed. The second point is Mike’s fear in general. He goes to a fortune-teller to ask about his brother leaving and is reassured that Jody won’t leave without him, which I guess was supposed to resolve that issue, but it made it seem redundant. He is then made to put his hand in a box that causes him pain. The only way to subside this pain is to let go of his fear. This lesson comes up again later when Mike is running from the Tall Man. He is faced with various obstacles that seem to fade if he lets go of his fear. This begs the question, do the Tall Man’s powers only work if his victims are afraid of him, and if so, this leaves more unanswered questions as to what he is that makes it hard to follow the story if you don’t already know the surprise ending.
The acting was fine. It was basic 80’s acting if that makes sense. My favorite character was Mike. He had a sort of charisma to him that you couldn’t help but like. There was an innocence to him that made you want him to succeed. In the brief moment where he was worried about his brother leaving him, he was easy to sympathize with. However, I don’t get the appeal of the Tall Man. I understand that some kids may find the creepy old men scary, but as a villain, I didn’t see anything that stood out from the more memorable villains from the ’80s. Perhaps his more memorable moments come in the sequels?
As far as scares go, I would give them a B. There was good jump scares throughout. The Tall Man’s full power seems to be on full display in the film’s climax, where he appears to be most menacing. Unfortunately, the mace fades as the scene progresses. He has a problem with popping up for a scare and not giving chase until the characters have already made a run for it. This film isn’t particularly gory. The bloodiest scene is when the flying orb shoots blood everywhere. That is only one kill, though, and I thought the spheres could have been used more effectively than they were. The rest of the kills are stabbings that mainly occur off frame, and when you see the aftermath, it looks too much like the actors got sprayed from ketchup bottles. An eerie atmosphere was attempted, but it didn’t make me feel any sort of way. It worked well with the film, but I never felt a sense of unease that was being attempted.
Overall, I would give this film a 3 ¾ out of 5. I don’t understand why it is a classic. It has all the makings to be a solid film, but there was just too much missing for me to give it a higher rating. However, that isn’t to say it’s terrible. I won’t say you should skip this watch, but if you can’t find it free on your streaming services, I wouldn’t bother paying the $3 rental fee on YouTube.
Phantasm (1979) Official Trailer