At the age of twenty-two, Don Coscarelli was looking to start working on his third feature film, following the childhood dramas “Jim, the World’s Greatest” and “Kenny & Company.” Inspired by an audience’s reaction to a jump scare moment in the Halloween-set “Kenny & Company,” and looking to achieve a level of success his dramas hadn’t, Coscarelli was set on giving the horror genre a try. At first, he considered making an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which centered on two young boys and the horrors that befall them when a mysterious carnival headed up by the evil, mystical Mister Dark arrives in their town. But the rights to make a cinematic adaptation of “Something Wicked” were held by Disney, so Coscarelli retreated to an isolated cabin to spend a few weeks working on an original idea in solitude.
The title he got from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Phantasm. The set-up was spun off from the basics of Something Wicked This Way Comes; Coscarelli’s story would still deal with a young boy and the horrors that come to his town with the arrival of an evil outside force – but in this case, it wouldn’t be a carnival. Coscarelli decided to base the horror around a concept that makes everyone uneasy, and yet it’s something we all inevitably face and must deal with – death. In particular, Coscarelli was fascinated by the American way of death, how we hand the bodies of our loved ones over to a mortician to work on behind closed doors and prepare for the event of the funeral days later. His own Mister Dark would be a mortician known only as The Tall Man. The plight of the youthful protagonist would also harken back to 1953’s Invaders from Mars. Another literary source of inspiration for Coscarelli was Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, and he was further fuelled by images from his own nightmares and the off-balance thoughts that came with spending weeks locked away in the mountain cabin alone.
With a loose, constantly evolving script in hand, Coscarelli proceeded to cast the film with actors he had worked with on his previous films and then production began. Being shot with rented equipment and exclusively on weekends, production continued on for nearly two years, with the budget ending up somewhere in the range of $300,000.
The film begins in the spookiness of a cemetery at night, where a young man named Tommy is getting it on with a nameless young lady in a lavender dress. Once they’ve both reached their climax, the lady draws a large knife out of nowhere and plunges it into Tommy’s body. As Tommy lays dying, the face of the lady in lavender is replaced by the face of a frightening older man. The Tall Man. As The Tall Man looks down on Tommy’s corpse with approval, we’ve gotten our first experience of the film’s “nightmare logic” approach.
Tommy’s funeral is attended by two of our lead protagonists, twenty-four year old Jody Pearson and his musician/ice cream man buddy Reggie. We get the impression that Jody was once a touring musician himself, but was forced to come in off the road two years earlier when his parents died, leaving him to take care of his younger brother Mike by himself.
Jody hasn’t brought Mike along to Tommy’s funeral because the young boy had nightmares for weeks after the services for their parents, but that hasn’t stopped the headstrong thirteen-year-old from riding his dirt bike over to the grounds of the Morningside Mortuary to watch from a distance as Tommy is buried in the very cemetery he was murdered in… Or at least, everyone attending his funeral believes that Tommy is being buried. From his vantage point, through a pair of binoculars, Mike witnesses the tall, strange mortician lift Tommy’s coffin back out of the grave all by himself after the priest and mourners have left and place the heavy object back into his hearse. This isn’t the only odd sight Mike sees at Morningside that day, also catching glimpses of cloak-wearing dwarves making odd, inhuman sounds as they run and hide among the tombstones… Jody doesn’t see the dwarves, but he also hears those sounds while visiting their parents’ vaults in the mausoleum.
At first, greater than Mike’s fear of what’s going on at Morningside is his fear of being abandoned by his brother, as now that he’s thirteen, Jody has been talking about moving on and sending Mike to live with an aunt. Mike is worried that he’s going to lose his brother like they lost their parents, and he really likes their life of hanging out, drinking Mexican beer and working on Jody’s Plymouth Barracuda. But as the brothers have more strange experiences at and around Morningside, they take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of it all. This is another example of the film’s dream-like sensibility: no matter what the Pearsons and their pal Reggie find themselves up against, they never once consider alerting the authorities. Delving into the mystery, they discover that The Tall Man is actually an alien from another world or dimension, gathering corpses on Earth to revive them and shrink them into the vicious dwarf creatures, sending them to his red-tinted, rocky desert homeworld through portals that are similar to large tuning forks. Once there, the corpses-turned-dwarves are used as slaves for unknown purposes. The Tall Man intends to ravage our planet, but despite the scope of this threat, it is only ever Mike, Jody, and Reggie standing between him and the end of the world.
The Tall Man is the embodiment of Death, a supernatural, otherworldy force around which reality and time distort. He can appear as other people, like the lavender lady. He is able to haunt dreams and cause hallucinations. When wounded, he spouts yellow blood, as do his dwarf creations. When his fingers are severed, he simply regenerates them, and the severed digits appear to take on a life of their own. Mike keeps one in a box, and it soon turns into a large, toothy, fly-like insect. And how is it possible that The Tall Man could be in a picture from the 1800s that Mike finds in an antique store?
The Tall Man’s funeral home is protected not only by the dwarves but also flying silver spheres that attach to a person’s head and drill through flesh and skull, pumping out blood. The brain-drilling silver spheres are one of the most popular elements of the Phantasm films, and the idea for them is one that came to Coscarelli in a dream – just like the spheres roam the halls of the mausoleum in the film, in Coscarelli’s dream he found himself being pursued through endless corridors by a silver sphere.
There are plenty of horror movies that take the nightmare logic approach that I find to be either off-putting or maddening, but in the case of Phantasm it works for me perfectly. The events are so strange and scattered, the concepts so odd and unique, the atmosphere so dark and creepy, it truly does feel like a crazy bad dream captured on film. It’s never certain if our heroes have stumbled across an alien evil for real or if this is all occurring only in the mind of a scared, traumatized young boy. There are no easy answers in the world of Phantasm, and the more you know, the more confusing it gets. And yet, it’s completely fulfilling as a film, very entertaining and involving.
The effectiveness of the film is enhanced by the fact that it has one of the best scores in horror history, with a fantastic and memorable theme composed by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. The exterior of the expansive Morningside Mortuary provides a wonderful setting for a horror movie. The mansion also served as a filming location for the 1976 horror film Burnt Offerings and the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill.
The cast all do well at inhabiting their roles, with A. Michael Baldwin making Mike one of the best child protagonists in horror, a tough kid who shows great bravery when going up against the forces of evil and a lot of ingenuity, particularly when it comes to escaping from a locked room. Bill Thornbury comes off as extremely likeable in the role of Jody, and Reggie Bannister gives the brothers great support as Reggie, who offers to help them “snag that tall dude and stomp the shit out of him”. As you can tell from the character names, some of these roles were written with the actors so in mind that they were named after them. Kathy Lester appears as the seductive Lady in Lavender, while Mary Ellen Shaw and Terrie Kalbus make an indelible impression as an unsettling, silent fortune teller and the teenage granddaughter who speaks for her. The character of The Tall Man was created with 6’4″ actor Angus Scrimm in mind, and this gave him his career-defining role, one which made him a horror icon.
The film runs approximately 88 minutes, during which time the characters come off as perfectly well-rounded, we get a great idea of who they are. Yet Coscarelli arrived at this running time by paring the film down from a 3 hour long cut, excising a lot of scenes that developed the relationship between the brothers even further, as well as giving background on the two sisters, Sally and Susie, who briefly become involved with the story – one is Jody’s girlfriend, and her sister works at Reggie’s ice cream shop. Removing the scenes establishing the girlfriend keeps viewers from wondering why Jody would attempt to have his own cemetery dalliance with the lady in lavender.
At one point, a nervous Reggie walks through the empty Pearson residence, on the lookout for anything connected to the Tall Man’s schemes. This scene ends with a jump scare, as a middle-aged woman comes barging through a doorway, asking a question in a very loud, high-pitched voice. The audience has no idea who this woman is or why she would be in the house, even though Reggie is relieved that he has merely been scared by “Myrtle”, who he appears to think has reason to be there. She’s a total mystery within the finished film, this is the only time we ever see her, but deleted scenes would’ve explained who that character is – she’s the boys’ housekeeper.
Coscarelli also had several different ideas for how to end the movie. While the finished film ends on ambiguity and twists, some would’ve clearly explained just what the entire movie had been. There were some interesting possibilities considered, but Coscarelli ultimately chose wisely. While the climactic confrontation with The Tall Man centers around a mine shaft, there were alternate versions of the demise of the villain conceived and filmed, and a couple of them came into play as the series continued.
Phantasm has gone on to be an intriguing, mind-bending franchise, but it’s the original film that stands tall among the bunch, being widely considered a true horror classic. Like George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper before him, like Sam Raimi after him, Don Coscarelli was an independent filmmaker who scraped together a low budget and set out to make a horror movie, and ended up making one of the greatest, most notable films in the genre.
Phantasm has been one of my favorites ever since I first watched it on VHS in the early ’90s. It’s a horror essential, one I would highly recommend to anybody.