This Halloween season, ‘Frightful Flickers’ will be revisiting horror staples of the past, some classics (and some not-so-classic). The first film we’re discussing is Phantasm, the popular saga of a boy, a funeral parlor, shiny balls, and monster jawas.
Phantasm is one of the pantheon of late 70s/early 80s horror films, released one year after the original Halloween and one year before Friday the 13th. Like those films, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Phantasm made a huge cultural impact upon arrival and was followed by numerous sequels of varying quality. Phantasm is the least of them, but that didn’t stop it from somehow garnering millions of fanboys and a huge following.
Phantasm is obviously a labor of love. Shot for what looks like $1.49, it contains big ideas, imaginative effects and characters, and evocative locations and atmosphere. Angus Scrimm (I mean, stop – you couldn’t make up a more perfect horror icon name) plays The Tall Man, a funeral director that needs to work on his bedside manner. During funerals, people wander around his mortuary, often scared by scurrying little jawa-like beings, which is weird but apparently not weird enough for people to just use another funeral home. He must have quite a monopoly on the recently deceased business.
Unfortunately, it all adds up to someone stringing some cool scenes together, with no idea how to build an actual story out of them. The Tall Man strikes an imposing figure, no doubt, and the flying silver spheres of death could be cool if used right. It’s just, not one second of this movie is scary. Not one story beat really makes sense. Not one character in the film acts like someone would in real life. Mike, the boy we mentioned earlier, spends most of his day stalking his brother Jody, riding his motorcycle, and visiting the town psychic (in maybe the stupidest horror movie scene I’ve ever endured). Jody, on the other hand, reacts to things like a living disembodied finger with a bored “ok” while being thunderstruck that his brother thinks weird things are going on. The whole town, by the way, seems to hang around the cemetery as a habit, for some reason, and have police that decide “suicide” for a corpse found stabbed in the chest with its pants down. Truly, this must be a town of morons.
The plot of Phantasm meanders around like a drunk guy at a county fair haunted house. The Tall Man appears to be some sort of interdimensional being who collects dead guys to make the jawas as slaves or something (they are short because of increased gravity in the other dimension). He is also a shape-shifter who changes into a hot girl, screws guys, and kills them. Not sure why the sex is necessary, when the 6’7” Tall Man could just, you know, kill them before getting busy. But whatever, to each interdimensional being their own. Also, that disembodied finger becomes a giant rubber fly – sorry to ruin the surprise.
Phantasm eventually made $12 million off a $300,000 budget, a huge return on investment. I just didn’t get it, at all. Even the music seems a mash-up of Halloween’s theme and Tubular Bells from The Exorcist. How The Tall Man and the silver spheres of death became cult icons is honestly beyond me, but they were popular enough to spawn four sequels. Why do you love Phantasm? Tell me I’m wrong on the message board below!
Phantasm is currently available streaming on Shudder (subscription needed), and is available for rent from all the usual suspects.
Check back for the next film in the ‘Frightful Flickers’ series, 2018's Revenge.