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If this doesn't scare you...
on 12 January 2015
When you think of horror, usually you think of gore, ghosts and/or slashers.
But Don Coscarelli introduced an eerier kind of horror in "Phantasm" -- the kind that flies at you in little metallic balls and drills into your head. This low-budget horror movie quietly worms its way into your soul and exposes all sorts of little fears -- of death, loss, undeath and creepy old men -- while also spooking you with the horrors that you can't even identify.
While his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) is at a funeral, Mike Pearson (Michael Baldwin) sees something odd outside the funeral home -- an old man (Angus Scrimm) casually lifting the casket and singlehandedly slinging it into a hearse. Soon Mike is being stalked by the Tall Man and his gibbering, dwarfish minions in their hooded cloaks. Think undead Jawas, but much, much more primally horrifying.
Of course, Mike tries to tell Jody and their old friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) what is going on, but they believe that Mike is just reacting to his brother's impending departure. So he sneaks into the Morningside Funeral Home, and comes back with the Tall Man's still-moving, yellow-bleeding finger. Finally convinced, Jody and Reggie help defend him from the Tall Man -- but what they find lurking with him is more ghastly than they could even imagine.
Reportedly Don Coscarelli originally wanted to adapt Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes," but the rights weren't available to him. So instead he crafted a movie out of his own nightmares. After all, the best horror movies are about more than the trappings -- they are the ones that tap into primal terrors that lurk in the shadows of your soul, and frighten you with the unnerving wrongness of everything that is going on.
Coscarelli directs the whole film in an oddly dreamlike manner, with lots of floating voiceovers and eerie marble halls. But the dream slowly turns into a nightmare, where scuttling things come out of the dark and collapse cars on you, or drag you screaming into the graveyard. Even the pleasantly shabby 70s home isn't safe from anyone. And the climax is terror of a different kind, especially when Mike sees where the Tall Man and his minions come from.
All the actors in this were relative newbies to the craft, but they give excellent performances -- Michael Baldwin as the gawky, inquisitive teen who adores his cooler older brother, but dreads his impending departure. The fear of loss and death permeates the entire story, underpinning the whole role of Mike. He clicks well with Bill Thornbury, who has the disbelieving-older-sibling role down without being a jerk about it.
And of course, Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm. Bannister isn't the central character as he is in later Phantasm films, but he gives a nice, solid, everyman performance as the boys' rock. As for Scrimm... he's every creepy old guy you ever saw in your life, encapsulated into one lanky unblinking creeper.
One slight flaw, though: the box scene. It's ripped directly from the beginning of "Dune" (it even has the same message -- I started babbling about fear being the mind-killer) and it honestly baffles me why this scene as-is is in the movie.
Don Coscarelli made a horror movie like no other with "Phantasm" -- an eerie, freaky movie haunted by the horrors that you usually can't see. You won't see anything else like it.