Right around the summer of 1980, I remember my cousin Scott excitedly telling me about this weird movie he somehow saw late at night. We were 13, and it's not like we were allowed to watch anything we wanted yet, so this rebellious tale intrigued me. He told me of a movie unlike anything he'd ever seen: Phantasm. It had, according to my cousin, "this tall, weird guy who's strong...and his finger gets cut off, but it's still alive...oh, and there's this ball with knives in it and it kills a guy...and people crushed down to midget size...and then the weird guy comes through the mirror!"
I thought he was making it up.
As I would discover in my journeys growing up, it turns out he didn't make it up. It is a real film, indeed. Made in 1977 and released in 1979, it is writer/director Don Coscarelli's first great tribute to cult films. He would make splashes throughout his career with cult classics like Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, as well as contributing a strong entry to the Masters of Horror series with Incident On and Off A Mountain Road. There's a free-wheeling creative energy to Coscarelli's films, and Phantasm is where I believe the ball started rolling.
To properly summarize Phantasm isn't a straightforward task. Its plot doesn't meander so much as it runs laughing, sometimes hitting walls, then proceeding to scamper in another direction, giggling with glee. This is a complaint by many, an endearing trait to others. As for my opinion, I found it fun because sometimes in life, it's OK to run flailing and laughing into walls.
Basically, it goes a little like this: Jody and Michael's brother Tommy is murdered by a mysterious person in the graveyard of the local mortuary. Jody wants to leave, but finds himself forced to care for his teenage brother. Michael, still hurting from the loss of their parents, is terrified of Jody leaving. When he spies the incredibly imposing Tall Man (the legendary Angus Scrimm) removing Tommy's coffin from the fresh grave, he pleads with Jody to investigate. Turns out people have been disappearing from the town for years, and the Tall Man and his house are at the center of it. Things get stranger and stranger, with hooded dwarves making periodic attacks on the two. Aided by their friend, groovy ice cream vendor Reggie (who becomes a bit of a randy, accidentally-indestructible action hero in his own right through the series), Jody and Michael enter the house to stop The Tall Man once and for all in a brouhaha that includes killer dwarf slaves, the Tall Man's gender-switching shapeshifter abilities, and gateways to other worlds.
If you cherish cult films as much as I do, you really should see Phantasm. It's not made on a huge budget and the acting is often unintentionally hilarious, but one can't fault a film that not only tries, but is perfectly comfortable in its own celluloid skin. Long-time readers know I like a film that has energy and a bit of a swagger (see my review of Equinox). Phantasm has that, and still resonates to this day. This film put Angus Scrimm on the map, and he is now undeniably a horror film icon - rightfully so, as his scenes are genuinely creepy and performed with confident presence. The musical score stands out, very John Carpenter-esque in its minimalistic approach, which lends to branding certain scenes with a certain mood.
Phantasm is pure, popcorn fun, taking me back to my youth, an early-80's kid just getting his feet wet in the horror genre, listening with a rapid heartbeat hammering in my ears to anyone who would tell me the synopsis of the latest "forbidden fruit," be it Phantasm or some years later, the classic Evil Dead. No Internet back then - word of mouth, trial and error at the local video store (miss you sometimes, VHS) and eventually Fangoria were the only ways I could get my horror movie interest stoked.
Enjoy, and remember to duck: