Phantasm (1979) is an interesting film that goes beyond what we typically see in the horror genre. On the surface it’s a movie about a young teenage boy who faces off against a mysterious employee of a nearby cemetery; what lies beneath is much more captivating.
Horror films often use an external force to move the story forward by creating artificial stakes that a character must overcome or die. The reason that most slasher movies fail is because these events happen to characters who are simply “dead meat” and have no purpose or reason to be in the film other than to run away from the obvious problem at hand. If you asked yourself, “why is this happening to this person?” in many horror films you would have to answer, “because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Many times the characters in horror films will have little to no flaws - they simply represent a human surrogate for the audience; we fear for them because we would fear for ourselves in that situation. In certain instances this can work but in many ways this creates a boring and predictable experience that we’ve seen countless times before. We become disengaged as an audience and simply wait for the film to conclude in it’s predictable way.
Rarely do we see movies in which a character develops within a horror film or is presented with their internal demons and flaws through an external force. What makes Phantasm such a success is that it chooses its characters and events as if these things were supposed to happen to them; like they actually belong in this story.
Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) is a younger teenager who recently lost his parents. His older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) has been looking for a way out of their town but has decided to stay behind for awhile and look after Mike until they can find a new home. Afraid to lose his brother too, Mike decides to follow Jody wherever he goes and spy on him. When one of Jody’s friends dies suddenly, he attends his funeral at the nearby cemetery - Mike follows him and that’s when the trouble starts.
After the service Mike stays behind - hidden in the bushes with a pair of binoculars - and observes the mysterious Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) as he robs the grave of Jody's friend. Mike decides to investigate the Tall Man and what follows is a series of increasingly bizarre encounters that lead up to an excellent climax and eventual reveal.
It's not worth going into the details of the story because it's better to be seen than explained. Writer/Director Don Coscarelli creates a film very reminiscent of David Lynch's work - it's both surreal yet grounded in a reality we can somewhat relate to. Coscarelli is not afraid to dabble into the fantastic and many of the elements of the film are lifted from Frank Herbert's Dune - including one scene that is almost stolen verbatim.
The story is not what makes Phantasm memorable, it’s the way it is presented to us. Phantasm feels like a waking nightmare, the tone and look of the film is very surreal and we can never quite be sure of what is real. This would be a problem if the characters weren’t supposed to exist in a world like this, but they do, they belong here and we are along for the ride with them. When we begin to question their actions and decisions the film rewards us with an interesting twist here or there to keep us engaged. Increasingly weird occurrences build to a climax that could be considered cliche in many other films but feels right here.
Phantasm is not a perfect film, it’s far from it. What makes it interesting and watchable is it’s raw storytelling and fearless choices that separate it from most of it's contemporaries. It’s a flawed movie that tries to achieve a little too much for it’s own good but is endearing for its efforts and fascinating for its decisions. I have seen modern critics call the film boring and that’s a legitimate gripe, the film is not long but it does have pacing issues. I believe Phantasm is best viewed within the scope of what it is trying to achieve, the sense of a nightmare and the idea that if you fell asleep while watching the movie it might continue in your dreams.
Phantasm is worth a viewing for any film fan - especially fans of 70’s horror. It’s a fascinating movie that exists in a place we have rarely seen. It’s not afraid to try something new and that’s an increasingly rare thing in most films.