Phantasm opens with a highly unappealing sex scene in a grave yard involving a stereotypical ’70s biker guy. As soon as they’re finished, the woman stabs the man in the chest, then turns into a tall, balding man herself.
Of course, the fatal stab wound to the chest is ruled a suicide.
Phantasm was Don Coscarelli’s first horror film (made after a couple family comedy/dramas). If one thing comes out at this stage of his career, it’s his imagination. Taken as a whole, it’s hard to think of anything that’s quite like it.
Jody, a traveling musician and old friend of the biker guy, comes home for the funeral. He’s now the legal guardian of his 13 year old brother, Mike, after the death of their parents. Mike is happy to have Jody back, but afraid that he’ll leave again (which he has every intention of doing). The running theme of the film is Mike’s need to face his fear, which is integrated in a none-too-subtle way. He goes to a fortuneteller, who tells him to put his hand in a magic box. The box takes his hand and inflicts pain while the fortuneteller’s grand daughter tells him not to fear it. When Mike calms down, the box releases its grip.
The theme pops up again when Mike discovers the portal to another planet, and then at the end of the film, when he is forced to face his fear of losing Jody.
The two (along with Reggie, the ice cream truck driver) work together to find out what is happening in the mortuary, which is staffed by a Tall Man who commands a team of evil dwarfs and uses a silver ball with blades in it as a weapon. In the course of investigating him, the three become his new targets.
There’s a slight H.P. Lovecraft kind of feel to the movie. First for the obvious reasons that it combines both horror and sci-fi elements; but also because of the sense of foreboding the film imparts. There’s a constant feeling that the protagonists are facing something far greater and more powerful than they can understand, not unlike the ancient alien races that populate Lovecraft’s work.
It’s a testament to Coscarelli that the Tall Man with the ball and the dwarf army come off as creepy and unsettling, rather than silly.
It’s not a perfect film. There are some plot holes, like, if Jody is Mike’s guardian, then who was taking care of him before he came back for biker guy’s funeral. There’s also some strange structural choices. Reggie and several girls are taken by the dwarfs, which you’d think would lead to a rescue/escape scene; but instead, Reggie just shows up while Mike and Jody are in the mortuary, and tells them that he found the girls and sent the through the window. It almost feels like they suddenly remembered a plot hole and slapped an explanation it.
Even with its slight flaws, the style, tone, and originality of Phantasm make it worth of its cult status.