Published Dec 14, 2012Don Coscarelli had low aspirations and even lower funding when he shot and directed Phantasm from his own script in the late 70's. But he also had a noggin full of wacky ideas that spurred a rabid cult following for his scrappy brand of reality hopping horror.
The Tall Man and his mortuary of bizarre inter-dimensional horrors predate seminal genre fare like The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser; each of which have echoes of Coscarelli's creative resourcefulness and smart tapping of mankind's fear of the dreaming mind.
However, displaying less artful surrealistic logic and deliberate symbolism than something like David Lynch's Eraserhead—which was released two years prior—less raw talent behind the camera than Sam Raimi or Wes Craven, and such moderate regard for the demands of coherent, layered storytelling that it feels wrong to even mention Clive Barker, Phantasm has built its reputation on charm. There is an undeniable, yet peculiar, affability to Coscarelli's direction that creates one of those alchemical situations in extremely low budget moviemaking where the cheesy, cheap, slightly "off" dynamic transcends reason to come off as unique and entertaining.
It helps that what story there is addresses the fear of loss and instability without taking itself too seriously or talking down to the audience. When in doubt, which seems to be often, considering the many throwaway scenes that are only sometimes functional as character development, Coscarelli takes the abstract route. This tends to piss off the least number of people while providing those searching for absent meaning something to obsess over.
The eclectic score by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave is as eccentric and bristling with creativity under a gaudy façade as the rest of the movie, jumping from funk to live acoustic blues-rock to tablas with electronic drones to a sinister twinkling piano theme, suiting the film's rapidly shifting moods and strange pacing.
A crazy goulash of ambiguity (how did the killer Jawa-looking minions come to be called alien dwarves if they're made out of recently deceased earthlings?), memorable oddities (just try to unstick that scene of Mike chopping off the Tall Man's fingers in a squelch of yellow blood) and shameless revelry in ham (take your pick – most scenes smell more of salty hog than Rob Ford's car seat) Phantasm was an important stepping stone in the development of playful, psychological shoestring horror.
Phantasm screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Birth of a Villain retrospective at 10pm on Saturday, December 15th. (New Breed)