Throwback Thursday Movie: Phantasm (1979)

A teenage boy named Mike recently lost his parents and is afraid his older brother, Jody, will leave him. Mike gains the habit of following Jody around to make sure he doesn’t get left behind. While following him to a funeral, Mike witnesses the strange Tall Man lift a coffin with a body inside like it was light as air. This shocking sight leads Mike to investigate what is really going on. What he finds is more bizarre than he could have ever expected.

This is a classic horror film that every fan of the genre should see at some point. That being said, I saw this film once when I was about 10 years old and only vaguely remembered it. Now that the remastered version is out, it seemed like the right time to watch the film again. While I remembered the infamous Tall Man and his deadly spheres, apparently that was about all I remembered. The aspects of the plot that included the brothers and their ice-cream man friend investigating the strange happenings and a portal to another planet seemed entirely new to me.

If nothing else, I can say that this film had a very unique plot. The Tall Man worked at a mortuary and used the bodies of the recently deceased to create his own army of minions. Due to the gravity of his home planet, the minions ended up half their normal size. This was all fine and interesting, but there were definitely more questions than there were answers while watching this film. It was implied that the Tall Man has been doing this since the days of horse drawn carriages. If that was the case, what was his ultimate goal? It seemed like he already had quite a few minions created, but there was no real purpose for them other than to lurk in the shadows of the graveyard and make creepy noises. I also wondered how the Tall Man had been doing this for so long in the same town, yet no one had noticed the strange disappearances or that the mortuary had been run by the same guy for the past hundred years. This seemed like the kind of franchise that would (hopefully) make more sense as you go through the following four films.

Since this was a low budget horror scifi flick made in the seventies, the acting was nothing to write home about. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was definitely a bit over the top. Angus Scrimm (Awakening, I Sell the Dead) was the only actor of note as The Tall Man. He only spoke a handful of lines throughout the film, but he had quite a presence on screen. He was tall, creepy, and had a stare that chilled the bones. Scrimm was perfectly cast for this role because he somehow managed to be a fearsome being, but there was also something humorous about the way he delivered his few lines. It was the perfect blend to fit in with this low budget classic.

It is time to address the elephant in the room that was the effects and creature design of this film. I’ll start small and work my way up. There was little need for any kind of gory practical effects in this film. The only scene that really had any was when the ominous sphere got lodged into a man’s head and then proceeded to drill a hole between his eyes. The effects are mediocre, but it was the thought that counts in this case. I love the idea of the flying killer sphere that drills into skulls enough to overlook the cheesy seventies effects. One thing I can’t overlook is the creature design for the army of minions. They look like freaking Jawas from Star Wars (which came out two years before Phantasm). I couldn’t help but wonder if this was intentional or just an oversight. The planet we saw the minions working on even looked like Tatooine. It may have been a poor decision on the filmmaker’s part, but I definitely got a good laugh out of it.

Phantasm was a cheesy, somewhat nonsensical, seventies horror scifi film that became a cult classic despite all its shortcomings. While I couldn’t help but be annoyed at all the questions I was left with after watching the film, it’s also easy to see why this is such a beloved film among horror fans. The Tall Man alone was enough of a creepy and compelling character to make me want to continue watching the rest of the franchise. One thing I would recommend to people who have not seen it before: go in thinking it is more of a comedy than a horror film. I think you will end up enjoying it much more that way.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

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