Retro-review: New this week in a PHASTASM 5-Film Collection set from Well Go USA!
aka MORNINGSIDE, THE NEVER DEAD, ZOMBIES
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli
Starring A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Terrie Kalbus, Kenneth V. Jones, Susan Harper, Lynn Eastman-Rossi, David Arntzen, Ralph Richmond, Bill Cone, Laura Mann, Mary Ellen Shaw, Myrtle Scotton, and Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man!
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There’s a wicked genius to the often nonsensical and often creatively overstuffed film called PHANTASM. It was a film I visited and revisted through the years. As I kid, I loved the endless waves of random monstrosities Michael, his hep cat brother Jody, and singin’ ice cream man Reggie confront in this film. But as I grew older, I began to understand some of the method behind the madness.
Watching the film again in this review, I kind of finally understood what PHANTASM is about. Sure there is a lot of hullabaloo about other worlds, corpse collecting Tall Men, silver flying balls, grunting Jawas, and toothy flies that just won’t go down the drain. But at its core, it’s about a young man trying to understand that which is unexplainable—death. As an adult, it’s hard enough to understand why someone is taken from one’s life, but as a child, it’s even harder to fathom. As Michael (played by A. Michael Baldwin) tries to understand the death of his parents and ***SPOILER the death of his protective brother Jody (Bill Thornbury)END SPOILER***, he encounters one horror after another. Along the way, his brother appears to him, gives him advice, but then disappears just as quickly, leaving Michael to cope and understand the personification of death in the form of The Tall Man and his little Jawa monsters. A fan of scifi and horror as indicated by the posters and toys in his room, Michael of course incorporates familiar monstrosities from those films as physical threats to take him to the same place where they took his parents. We see this film through Michael’s eyes, and because of that, the narrative is choppy and nonsensical. People pop in and out of the scene with little explanation. Motives are murky. And randomness abounds. But that is the world of a mind that doesn’t fully understand what is happening after a tragedy, as the Tall Man appears again in the final moments, it’s a feeling that seems never ending and indefinable. In one scene, Michael even climbs into a coffin himself in order to hide from the Tall Man, so he even experiences what it is like to be dead as an attempt to understand it. This film is a nightmare through a child’s eyes with a childish understanding. If you understand that, you’ll appreciate this film a whole lot more.
Then again, it is also a very amateurly made film. While symbolic significance can be applied to it, there are some very rough edges to Coscarelli’s PHANTASM. If you are of a more literal minded viewer, I’m sure there will be aspects of this film that will be unforgivable and downright unwatchable. A maid, never before mentioned in the film, pops up for a jump scare. A hair-brained plan to knock the Tall Man into a well is hatched at the last second. People die and then appear alive ten minutes later. All of this is what makes this film much more of a stream of consciousness nightmare you just ride out rather than rack your brain to make sense of. If you do that, this film is sure to give you a headache and you’ll be left wondering what the hubbub is all about with this movie.
In terms of ideas, PHANTASM is loaded with them, but the genius in the ideas comes from how this film seems to have been pieced together with whatever was around that particular day. They have an idea for a fly that grows from a severed finger, so a fake fly is used for the scene. Someone has a few extra robes? Well, let’s have the monsters be snarling Jawas. It’s that type of ingenuity that makes this do it yourself nightmare fun. This is before CG effects, but somehow, Coscarelli manages to create an entire world and mythos with this first film—a mythos that is elaborated on and developed in future installments. But the charm here is that nothing is really explained. It’s just random shit happening to Michael and his loved ones and this unpredictable nature makes the entire film a rapidly paced thrill ride of a film.
Sure the acting stinks. Seeing Baldwin trying to emote and not be nervous in the quieter scenes is wince inducing as are most of the other performances aside from the truly iconic look and feel of Scrimm as the Tall Man. It’s because of Scrimm’s every action that this film became the series it is today as everything about him makes him something that seems to have stepped from the most twisted childhood nightmare. But despite Scrimm, this is some rough thespian work exemplified here.
That said, this new restoration cleans up this film so well. It highlights the depths of the darkness Michael is running through and even delves in to clean up the effects by taking out the obvious wires the silver balls were floating on. But thee most significant improvement is the way this film sounds. Not only is the score cleaned up and sharpened, the creature effects make the whole thing feel all the more chilling; from the guttural grunts of the Jawas to the otherworldly hum of the silver orbs.
See PHANTASM if you can. If you saw it as a kid, you most likely didn’t pick up on the heavy themes of death and acceptance. It plays with the narrative and tries to fool you into following one POV (Jody’s), yet it is telling a story with an idealized version of that character seen through the eyes of his brother (Michael). These are themes that only made me appreciate this film more after seeing it again. Seeing it as an adult made me appreciate it more as well as long for that time when I simply marveled at the cool effects. It’s one of those rare films that is just as good seeing it later in life as it is when you first saw it and if you’ve never seen it. Hang convention at the door and just dive into the oblivion. You’ll enjoy it better that way.