Directed by: Don Coscarelli (BubbaHo-Tep)
Starring: A. Micheal Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm
Like my colleague Ken Hanke likes to put it, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) is the most perfect drive-in movie ever made. The film’s concept is a doozy. A supernatural undertaker (Angus Scrimm) reanimates and enslaves corpses—but not before they’re squished down into dwarf size—in order to send them off to go work on some far off alien planet. Throw in a flying metallic ball that attaches itself to one’s head in order to bore a hole and juice said noggin into a bloody mess, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a schlocky horror movie. On paper, Phantasm isn’t a good movie. The acting is bad and the budget is worse. And yet, there’s something charming and innocent in its approach, something that’s less surprising once you realize the film is actually a meditation on death and loss.
Nevertheless, it’s a pretty odd look at death and loss, mostly in that it’s the ultimate boyhood fantasy of a horror film. We follow two brothers (A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury)—with occasional help from Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the local ice-cream man—as they run around in a muscle car, shooting up anything that gets in their path as they try to get to the bottom of the mystery behind Scrimm’s Tall Man. Oh, and don’t forget the random bits of female nudity that crop up a couple of times for no reason. What keeps this from being obnoxious, however, is the way it’s handled. Since the film is being told from the point of view of Michael, the younger of the brothers—and once we get to the film’s twist ending—it makes sense that this is the only way the film could be told.
Plus, the entire film is handled in such a good-natured way that it’s difficult not to like it. Yes, the acting is pretty atrocious and the special effects are pretty cheesy, but there’s no cheeky self-awareness going on. It’s bad because that’s what Coscarelli and friends had to work with, not because of some postmodern winking at the camera. It certainly helps that the film is ultimately—and surprisingly—sweet-natured.
But with all this talk about the film’s weaker points, don’t let me sound like I’m selling Phantasm short. Coscarelli’s direction is surprisingly assured (just look at the way he intercuts dialogue on occasion to move the plot forward) and heavy on mood. Of course, the film’s locales—graveyards, darkened back roads, a mausoleum—help, but so does the film’s score. Written by Fred Myrow (Soylent Green) and Malcolm Seagrave, the score goes beyond just having a good theme, managing to be both fascinating and a bit innovative while never feeling intrusive. It all adds up to a classic of ‘70s horror, one that may not have the reputation of, say, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but a movie that nonetheless holds its own special place within modern horror.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Phantasm Thursday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.