Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm first published by

The paradox of death is that it is both inevitable and arbitrary. We know that it is coming, just not when or how, and this mystery of mortality is one of the more haunting parts of the human condition. 13-year-old Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) has had to learn these lessons early and hard. Two years ago, he lost both his parents, and now Tommy (Bill Cone), a close friend of his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), has also died. The word is that Tommy committed suicide, but that story is contradicted by the opening scene of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, in which we see Tommy in the Morningside cemetery at night, engaged in intercourse a blonde woman (Kathy Lester), only to be stabbed to death by her post-coitally. Even more transgressive, a match cut reveals that the nubile young woman is in fact a guise for a creepy old man (Angus Scrimm), subsequently referred to as ‘the Tall Man’. So in this prologue, as in a dream, identity is fluid and the boundaries between sex and death are blurred.

“After Mum and Dad’s funeral, he had nightmares for weeks,” Jody tells his friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), explaining why it is good that Mike has not come to Tommy’s funeral. In fact Mike is there, sneaking around the periphery of the Morningside property (where his parents are buried) while the service takes place indoors. For Mike anxiously follows his older brother everywhere – and when he hears Jody mention plans of “sending him off to live with his aunt”, Mike’s separation anxieties really kick in. So it is clear, even thematised, from early on that the strange events in Phantasm might just be a nightmarish expression of this pre-adolescent boy’s sense of abandonment in the tragic face of death. We can see it in the way that, whenever Jody insists that Mike stay behind in the house, Mike resists his instructions, unable to let his brother face deadly danger alone. “You’re not coming back, you goddam bastard!”, shouts Mike, locked in his room by Jody so that he will not follow, “Don’t leave me alone!” Put simply, Mike just cannot let Jody go, and all the surreally supernatural experiences that the young teen has may be an oneiric enactment of this clinging dynamic.

Something odd does appear to be happening at Morningside, the locus of all Mike’s feelings of loss and grief. Mike half-sees little hooded figures running between the graves, and fully sees the Tall Man, who is funeral director there, single-handedly and effortlessly lifting Tommy’s coffin into a hearse. Meanwhile the place’s interiors – all red curtains and marble busts – are like a precursor to the Black Lodge in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (made over a decade later), a liminal space between life and death (there is even, again prefiguring Twin Peaks, a grandmother-and-grandchild team of mystics). A metal sphere hovers about the hallways, drilling its way into the forehead of any intruder, while the Tall Man and his midget minions have sinister designs on both the loved ones brought to the funeral home, and the corpses that they themselves make. It is a dream-like narrative, mashing together sci-fi, horror and magic into one boy’s irrational struggle to process, elude, even defeat mortality itself (personified by the relentless, shape-shifting Tall Man). “Fear’s the killer,” Mike will be told of a frightening and painful experience, “It was all in your mind.” The same might be said of all the film’s events, as grief, trauma and denial get staged as psychodrama – until a close-to-the-end revelation rooted in hard, harrowing reality.

Directed, written, shot and edited by Coscarelli for a year over weekends, and made with largely inexperienced cast and crew (including family and friends), Phantasm is a low-budget labour of love that more than earns its cult status through its blithe disregard for realist logic, its introduction of a now iconic villain, and its (narratively justifiable) puerile approach to eschatological issues. Meanwhile Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s Goblin-esque score helps set the tone of the fantastic and the grotesque. Four sequels would follow – but the original film, along with its 4K restoration (in 2016),  leaves the rest behind, both as unexpectedly and necessarily as death itself.

Summary: Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is a pre-adolescent’s pre-Lynchian fugue from mortality’s mourning side.

© Anton Bitel