If you're lucky, you don't dream about death a whole lot when you're young. During your earliest days, the universe is still filled with endless possibility, so the notion of mortality isn't one that hangs over you like a skeleton-shaped Charlie Brown storm cloud. That comes later. After you've lost somebody close – a parent to cancer, a big brother to bad luck - the truth regarding our inevitable finality as a species begins to set in, as does the resulting anxiety surrounding that realization. Your reveries are no longer exclusively devoted to whatever fantastic career (an actor; a fireman) you think you can attain once you grow up, or that cute boy/girl down the block. You're gonna die. The only questions now are how and when.
The craziest thing about Don Coscarelli's immortal DIY masterwork, Phantasm, is that it takes this creeping dread we all come to comprehend at different points of our lives and crafts an incredibly entertaining motion picture around it. Outside of maybe Sam Raimi, Coscarelli has always been the artist from this late '70s/early '80s independent horror class who was having the most fun, and his first genre feature is no different. While an overwhelming portent of doom hangs over every jangly, off-kilter scene (a sensation made flesh by Angus Scrimm's iconic Tall Man mortician), this is still a motion picture comprised of monsters, guitar jams, car chases, flying silver spheres of death and the universe's most heroic ice cream man. In essence, Coscarelli is utilizing unhinged showmanship in service of delivering a rather grim universal truth.
Little brothers love their big bros, and the same goes for Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), who looks up to Jody (Bill Thornbury) like he's an absolute God. And why wouldn't he? Jody wears leather jackets, wails on a Fender, drives a souped up muscle car and ladies at the local Cantina love him. Yet none of that matters to Jody if Mike isn't safe. Because while Jody definitely wants to hit the road and see the rest of America (as opposed to being stuck in their shithole hometown), he knows that he has a responsibility to take care of the little rugrat after their parents tragically passed away. Part of him pines for the trip that was cut short, as he considers pawning the pipsqueak off on their aunt and uncle, but not until he knows for certain that Mike is OK. The kid's been having nightmares and acting real weird lately, so until he settles down, the newly minted father figure knows he needs to stick with his role.
There’s an element of unleashed pre-teen id to Phantasm once the unadulterated genre elements kick in (it’s hard to fully classify this mash-up as a “pure” horror film) that keeps its already brief 88-minute runtime chugging along at a breakneck pace. This over the top juvenilia is also what sets the movie apart from its low budget peers. For a movie that was “mostly shot on weekends” (as Coscarelli lovingly/jokingly refers to the guerilla production schedule), there’s hardly any limit to the imagination that made it up on screen. What begins as a kind of rudimentary application of tropes (graveyard sex, Mike investigates creepy goings-on at a spooky mortuary) quickly morphs into a roaring investigation of parallel red-skied dimensions and the demons they harbor. Scrimm’s Tall Man may be a terse play on the undertaker archetype, growling about funerals and shooting goofy raised-eyebrow looks. However, his flying spheres of brain-sucking destruction and lurking, crushed corpse dwarves seem like they legitimately came from the sketchbook of a daydreaming, Famous Monsters of Filmland-obsessed junior high student. Combined with flashes of boobs and full-scale vehicular mayhem, these elements amalgamate into a perfect representation of the wild tales that occur within the brains of snoozing boys.
Truly what makes or breaks most B-grade pictures of this period are the performances, but every (mostly) untested player Coscarelli picked for this labor of love is injecting a weird idiosyncratic joy into their respective character. Jody could easily be nothing more than the big brother prototype (and, to a rather large extent, he is), but his delivery of the writer/director’s dialogue is always disaffectedly spot on. Whether he’s lecturing his kid brother about the bullshit nature of warning shots or doing his damndest to illustrate just what the hell is going on to his best friend, Bill Thornbury never comes off as anything less than utterly unflappable. Baldwin, on the other hand, has to maintain a balance of shrieking little bro hysteria and brass ball curiosity, as he lurks around the Tall Man’s domain, desperate to discover anyone who will pay attention to these wacko happenings he’s witnessing. Reggie Bannister (who has never once been spotted in the same room as Dean Norris) approaches every scene with a wide-eyed, what the fuck astonishment, keeping it “hot as love” during the daytime, but then totally freaking out once the shit hits the fan. However, as the three become unified, ready to stomp out evil, they feed off of one another’s courage. It’s again the idealized way young men view their best buds; rocks of support during even the oddest, most trying times.
When Angus Scrimm passed away in January, we lost one of the classiest figures of DIY '70s horror. Standing six feet four inches tall, Scrimm appears extraordinarily gangly due to his undersized suits and the lifts he wore in his shoes. Yet it’s the way he moves that lends this Master of Death his otherworldly air of netherworld grace. He’s suddenly that unknowable evil – part kooky old codger down the block, part lumbering Satan, part corporal punishment obsessed vice principal – swimming through the smoke of our nightmares, ready to drag us down to whatever terrifying afterlife (or lack thereof) awaits once our hearts completely give out from pure fear. All it takes in the annals of horror for an actor to become a legend is one completely owned character. For Scrimm, the Tall Man stands as one of the great genre villains thanks to the former Kansas City music journalist’s commitment to looming strangeness. We’ve never heard the word “boy” the same way since it came charging from the lowest regions of his belly.
We often describe the works of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento as “dreamlike”, on account of their individual ineptitude and disregard for traditional narrative smashing headfirst with a shared love of musically driven “pure cinema”. However, Don Coscarelli one-ups these maestros by knowingly committing to creating a fluid dreamscape using many of the same tools that came to define Italian horror. Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s synthy, driving score possesses the same prog rock relentlessness as the best works of Goblin, as Coscarelli’s self-shot cinematography captures the inky blackness of never-ending night. There’s also a keen eye for disorienting design by David Gavin Brown, who helps envision the supernatural mortuaries as labyrinths of the damned; haunted homes guarded by sentient weapons sent from a galaxy of terror. Nearly forty years on (and newly restored in gorgeous 4K with the help of JJ Abrams), the movie is still a garish marvel.
For all of its obvious budgetary limitations, Phantasm is a work of visionary genius, looking and sounding unlike any other American horror production of its own or any other filmic epoch. There are certain pictures that are completely of their time period, but somehow still manage to become ageless due to thematic execution. Coscarelli and his crew have tapped into the existential angst we are all required to come to terms with in our own way; waking up in the middle of the night, covered in cold sweat, knowing that chilly dismay is never going to go away for the rest of our days. The Reaper is coming, in one form or another, and we can fight Him by any means necessary until there’s no more battle left in our bellies. So while we still draw breath, we may as well cock our shotguns, grab our best friends, climb into our '71 Barracudas and roar off into the darkness, ready to confront the wraiths of wrath with every ounce of might we can muster. We’re all gonna fucking die, so put a load of buckshot into Death’s face before He drags us into the abyss.