The production of Phantasm was scattered over a two-year period, shooting on weekends and with writer-director Don Coscarelli making notes in the editing room for what he and his crew would shoot next. The original script transformed into a fractured narrative, which accounts for the dreamlike quality of the finished product. It feels more like the atmosphere-driven Italian horror films of the 1970s, which disregarded plot and narrative in favor of nightmarish imagery, mood, and anarchic gore sequences.
Yet what makes Phantasm special is the way it captures a boy’s life in 1978. The hero, 13-year-old Mike (Michael Baldwin), has just lost his parents and his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), a musician living on the road, has come home to take care of him. Mike has an unnatural interest in Jody, following him around and worried that Jody is going to leave him. The film, then, can be viewed as a haunting fable of an adolescent grappling with his fear of death.
As Mike rides his motor scooter through the Morningside Cemetery in the small Oregon town the teen calls home, he discovers a bogeyman, The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), in the guise of a funeral director singlehandedly lifting a casket into the back of a hearse. The graveyard is a paranormal minefield where unseen forces hurl Mike from his bike, and tiny hooded figures scamper around trees. Soon the kid becomes convinced that The Tall Man is a creature that destroyed his parents, and that he and his older brother are next.
As Mike struggles to get Jody to believe him, he continues his attempt to gather evidence, and the phantasmagoria grows increasingly weird. He’s pursued down a mortuary’s grand halls by flying metal spheres that drill into their victim’s foreheads and, when he slices off one of The Tall Man’s fingers, it bleeds bright nail-polish yellow. Taking home the bogeyman’s disembodied body part, Mike tries to show it to his brother, at which point it transforms into a buzzing killer insect. Phantasm careens along in this outlandish fashion, and its big scares work because they seemingly continue to emerge from a writer’s feverish subconscious, one racked with dread and confusion.
Filmed on an incredibly low budget, Phantasm feels like a dug-up artifact from the late ’70s, when long hair and hitchhiking were going the way of the dodo. Some of the supporting cast is uneven, but the core group of actors (who returned for many of the sequels) seem as familiar and recognizable as young Elliot from Steven Spielberg’s E.T. There’s a certain kind of blue-collar, rural-suburban lifestyle represented here, where the kids are allowed to drink a beer and pleasure is found working under the hood of a muscle car. An extended scene shows Jody and his pal, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), a balding ice cream vendor with a ponytail, sitting on the porch, playing guitar, and if you grew up in this milieu you might feel as if you know these guys. They seem vivid and idiosyncratic, goofy and real. They’re nothing like the plastic WB teen actors that populate so many of today’s horror remakes.
Maybe they could get away with more back then. There’s a memorable sequence in the film where a frustrated Jody locks Mike up in his bedroom, and the kid makes his own bomb by taping a shotgun shell to a hammer and swinging it against the door, blasting it open. It’s definitely a “don’t try this at home” moment, and in real life the kid might have blown his hand off, but in the film it shows off his resourcefulness. Kids shouldn’t play with firecrackers or fire, but they do because there’s a real allure to it, kind of like drinking that beer when you’re not supposed to. Mike gets to do all of those things.
That explains the film’s enduring appeal: Younger viewers continue to recognize something of themselves, or who they’d like to be, in young Mike. One might think many of those younger viewers would be repulsed by the violence, but anyone who thinks that hasn’t really delved into the bleak and horrific world of the Grimm brothers, where Rapunzel’s prince had his eyes gouged out with thorns. Phantasm delves deep into the macabre along with Mike, and it’s a pleasure to see him eventually get Jody and Reggie on his side, breaking into the mortuary to discover just why The Tall Man is robbing graves, and where all those freaky little people came from.
The solution they stumble across feels like the “eureka” of an acid trip, and provides a weird logic that seems culled more from Frank Herbert’s Dune series than Edgar Allan Poe. And even then, Reggie wonders if what Mike has experienced was all a dream. There’s never any solid explanation for it all, any more than Alice understood what led her into Wonderland. Phantasm is better experienced than explained, and to paraphrase Jung: “A dream is an end undoing, and to analyze the dream is to undo the undoing.”