I always like to wait at least one night between watching a horror movie and reviewing it, just in case the film actually succeeds at giving me nightmares (so far, none has.) In the case of Phantasm, however, I waited a few more days for a different reason. I wanted to go over it in my mind a little more, to be sure I was giving it a fair chance. It is, after all, the sort of film I would normally hold in reserve for October and my Halloween Haunters series. It could be that by viewing it in mid-August (due to it expiring from my Hulu queue), where it’s not surrounded by its peers and spiritual descendants, I wasn’t giving it as good a chance to impress me as it might normally have had.
Sadly, after thinking about it for a while, I think I have to go with my first impressions. I am reasonably sure that the issues with the film that bothered me would still have bothered me had I been in full horror-movie-month mode.
The story in Phantasm concerns a small group of friends that have reunited for the funeral of one of them who allegedly committed suicide (the audience has already been shown it was murder). Afterward, the youngest of them, Mike, spies the funeral director hefting the coffin all by himself back into his hearse instead of interring it in the ground. Investigating further, he finds that the funeral home is filled with zombie-like creatures made from the corpses of the people who were supposed to be in the mausoleum and cemetery. He alerts his older brother Jody, and together with their friend Reggie, they set out to determine what’s going on before they’re killed themselves.
Reggie has “impending victim” written all over him.
The problem, in a rarity for horror movies, isn’t with the actors. Despite only being a teenager, and having to carry the bulk of the film, A. Michael Baldwin acquits himself well as Mike. His fear is believable, while never seeming irrational, and he comes across as a clever but troubled young man. Bill Thornbury plays his older brother Jody, and while the role isn’t much deeper than “cool older brother”, Thornbury plays it with both confidence and competence; he makes for a decent, if underdeveloped, heroic lead. And Reggie Bannister fits the role of Reggie perfectly (one wonders if characters were renamed to the actors); he isn’t quite comic relief, but he’s definitely a sidekick even to the kid.
Special mention must be made of Angus Scrimm as the villain, the Tall Man. It’s not hard to see how the film spawned sequels despite my issues with it; Scrimm makes for an imposing villain physically, and despite having only a paucity of lines, he fills them with menace for his intended victims.
No, the problem with this film has to be blamed writer-director Don Coscarelli. Not so much with the directing, though; Coscarelli, who would later go on to direct the hilarious Bubba Ho-Tep and recent cult film John Dies at the End, does a pretty good job as a director here. There aren’t any obvious gaffes in the shooting, night scenes are clearly real night but are still visible, and while some of the special effects are showing their age, they all would have been perfectly serviceable in 1979.
It’s the writing. The dialogue is good, and the basics of the plot are workable, but the details lead the whole thing astray. There are scenes which are clearly meant to be frightening by adding to the threats against the heroes, but which wind up comical — not due to any failure of special effects or acting, but due to the very premise. A severed zombie finger turning into a gremlin may be weird, but it’s far too goofy to be scary. The signature flying spheres of death might partially be a case of special effects failure — they’d certainly be scarier if they weren’t clearly flying on a line — but it’s also partially because they come out of nowhere. They feel more like a deathtrap element than something that’s augmenting the villain’s personal threat level. It demonstrates a distinction between the villains of action movies and the villains of horror movies: an action movie villain can put the hero in danger, but a horror movie villain has to be the danger to really work. The flying spheres, while gruesome and impressive, are simply too impersonal to work for a horror movie.
What bothered me most, though, wasn’t whether the threats were frightening or not, it was the twists and turns the narrative took. It was a little slow-moving at first (aside from the initial murder), and this actually works in its favor as far as building suspense. But it’s too in love with plot twists that are pure unforeshadowed swerves, such as the aforementioned finger-gremlin, or a character who returns out of nowhere. It breaks the suspension of disbelief when the film feels like it’s “But wait! Now there’s this!” every twenty minutes or so, especially when those twists make no sense on the face of it. Many of the supernatural elements are unexplained (how does the finger turn into a gremlin, what’s the nature of the murderous girl), and this is sometimes okay in a horror film, but here they don’t seem to entirely make sense even within the film’s internal framework. It really doesn’t help that when the film does choose to explain things, those explanations make even less sense than leaving things unexplained. The final insult is at the end, where the film has a twist and then a counter-twist, and each only serves to make the film that much more ridiculous; I was watching the end of the film not with fear nor relief, but with my eyes rolling.
Horror fans will probably still want to check the film out for historical perspective; it’s well-regarded within the genre, and seems to have been an influence on several films to follow. But other movie viewers will likely be just as happy skipping it.