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Phantasm
Written by: Darren Compton and Alex Sandell

Note:  Phantasm is one of the best horror flicks ever made (at least I think it is).  It's as underrated as something that's really underrated.  Like Guess Jeans, or something more important than trendy crap like Guess Jeans.  Stupid "Guess" triangle slapped on the ass of Guess Jeans.  Phantasm is bloody scary, and it was way ahead of its time (back in 1979).  Count the numerous scenes A Nightmare on Elm Street stole from this film (along with the stuff it shamelessly robbed from Dreamscape).  If you turned Phantasm into a drinking game, and the game was based solely on Nightmare theft, yOu'D be pASSed oUt beFORe thE fiLM's FINalE!  Guest critic, Darren Compton, and uh, "not-guest-critic" co-writer Alex Sandell both appreciates the film.  Oh, and there happens to be three sequels to the film (all of them worth watching), a fifth is in the works (supposedly).  So, get a head start and rent the first, if you haven't already. - Alex Sandell

Shot on a deathly low budget, Phantasm delivered the dreamlike tale of a boy, Michael (Mike Baldwin), who stumbled upon a grave-robbing old gentleman in a suit, known as "The Tall Man" (Angus Scrimm). One night in a lonely graveyard provided the suspicious Michael with plenty of questions.  Why was The Tall Man stealing coffins, with bodies firmly intact? Where was he taking them? What is it in those bodies that drive him to do such a thing?  How is it that he can lift a coffin with a corpse still in it, without effort? I mean, really, this dude is old.  Like, he could be your grandfather. 

The word "phantasm" means a mental image or representation of a real image, or a dream, or an illusion. This film is appropriately titled as it guides you through images and circumstances that can only be that: a phantasm. And what threads the haunting images of the film together is its pulsating theme music.  It's almost as unforgettable as the themes to Halloween or The Exorcist. The arrangement is simple, but "simple" can sometimes churn up the most effective mood if it's done right.  Phantasm does it right in spades.

As mentioned before, this film's budget is low, but a low budget isn't a bad thing. In fact, a low budget film, like this one, can prove to a viewer just
how creative and imaginative a filmmaker can get. If some young dude can get flying "sentinel balls" to be effectively scary, and even fun, then the filmmaker is surely a true cinematic artist. In this case, writer/director/producer/cinematographer/editor Don Coscarelli has composed a mini-masterpiece off of his lunch money.  Well, at least if he eats a big fucking lunch.

The picture is grainy (but still looks better than that Blair Witch thing), and the dialogue is simple and to the point.  Even in the middle of the movie, there's a friendly guitar jam between two buddies in front of a store...and it doesn't feel awkward. It takes a lot to make a guitar jam feel natural. Trust me, I tried it in my first band, D.O.G. (Delusions of Grandeur), and it usually didn't fly (unlike those sphere thingies).  Sure, the jam in Phantasm may be played on the side of country-blues, while D.O.G.'s was punky thrash-metal, but it's the thought that counts.  

The film's visual effects are limited, but they get a lot out of the small amount that they've been given to work with. The most popular effect, the Sentinel balls/spheres, works the best.
They're nothing more than vicious killer balls flying in mid-air, guarding The Tall Man's mortuary from inquisitive intruders.  But once you see them in action, the profile shots of the balls flying will remind you of the X-Wings attacking the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope.  Well, probably not that good, but this is a horror movie and Star Wars was like the biggest film ever created.  As you watch the balls (that sounds so perverse), part of your brain is thinking that they're totally artificial, while the other part is telling the realistic part of your mind to shut the hell up, because it all looks cool anyway.

The acting in the film can be pretty laughable. But please, so are the performances in most horror movies. Suspense flicks aren't exactly remembered for the stunning acting they feature.  They're oftentimes remembered for the bare-naked boobies bouncing around, or the blood splattered across the screen, but acting has rarely been a strong-point.  In Phantasm, Michael Baldwin sounds, and looks, like a red-headed little girl. In some scenes, where he's supposed to be convincing his brother of what he saw, you begin to giggle like a girl yourself. You can't help it he's unintentionally funny.  After numerous girlish giggles, you may end up wondering whether or not you're gay, yourself.  You might even look at an issue of Playboy, just to see if you're still aroused by chicks.   

Angus Scrimm delivers the most memorable performance in the film.  His gritty, aged voice has haunted horror fans throughout the past 24 years, and its coldness and sense of dread still send shivers up and down your vulnerable spinal column. Angus's direction in the Phantasm films has pretty much been "hey, stand there," and Angus would follow the directions, but look like a constipated Christopher Lee, while doing it.  The guy is creepy as all hell.  I've had nightmares about this man.  Heterosexual nightmares.  Yikes.  But his performance in the fourth Phantasm was incredible.  But I'm getting aside of myself.

Jody is pretty wooden. Although, no one can blame him if he's a bad actor because it doesn't seem that he put any effort into it at all. Reggie is great. The actor isn't, but the best part is that he knows he isn't, and he has fun with it. He tries to deliver his lines -- as cheesy as they are -- and whether or not you like that kind of comedy, he succeeds. It becomes painfully obvious, at times, that Coscarelli hired his friends to do this film, and he's stuck with them (minus Baldwin for Phantasm 2) up to the point of having Reggie and Michael making cameo appearances in his new film, Bubba Ho-Tep.

As the minutes tick by, and the story develops further into strange land, this film may get too weird for some tastes.  But those aren't the tastes that this film was meant to appeal to.  It's a drive-in film with a hell of a lot of edge.  And, as Martha Stewart would say, before she became a mass-murderer, or whatever she turned into, when she turned super evil, that's a good thing. 

Coscarelli's going for the weird with Phantasm, and then completely out of this world. He's reaching for that level of nightmarish disbelief that's usually reserved only for real life nightmares.  What a set of spheres that guy musta had on him.

On a scale of 1-10?

9

What does this rating mean?  Everyone rates things differently.  Your "5" could be my "7," or vice-versa.  Find out what MY rating means by clicking here

Agree? Disagree? Feeling bored and wanna write a letter that you'll probably never get a response to?  Email me at alex@juicycerebellum.com 

Coming soon -- Reviews of The Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King, Something's Gotta Give and Cheaper by the Dozen!

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Text (Copyright) 2003 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].