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Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm



Phantasm, USA 1979. Directed and written by Don Coscarelli.

Metropol Phantom Theater, Row 1 Seat 4. Uncut 4K-restored original version w/ German subs.

(This post also appears, in slightly different form and without the amendments, at my Instagram account betweendrafts.)

As a teenager, I became a fan of the science fiction B movie genre (Wise, Corman, Arnolds, early Carpenter, and so on), but horror was part of my diet only when it came wrapped in SF (The Thing from Another World, ゴジラ, Terrore nello spazio, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and so forth). Fantasy horror for me came much later, for reasons I can’t reconstruct, so I missed all the classics and still have to catch up. Tonight, it was Phantasm—and I gotta say, for what the movie wants to be, it’s pretty darn good.

The plot, I’ll hand you that, is imaginative. Slightly condensed, it “introduces the Tall Man, a supernatural and malevolent undertaker, who turns the dead of Earth into dwarf zombies to be sent to his planet and used as slaves. He is opposed by a young boy who tries to convince his older brother and a family friend of the threat.” Cinematography, dialogues, acting, and cut often border on the amateurish. But the beats come without ado when they should, and there’s a slew of haunting, vivid scenes, sets, and ideas. The score is pretty good too—a riveting mixture of Goblin-esque psychedelic synths (think 1970s, not 1980s) on the one hand, and what sounds like a lost demo tape from Mike Oldfield on the other.

There are many movies out there that cost a lot more than $300K and are a lot worse in all these departments.

As to the plot, that it rarely makes sense actually counts as the movie’s core strength. Everything feels like a dream, and everything within that dream feels like manifestations of fears. Phantasm clearly had a strong influence on the teenage-angst horror movies of the 1980s that would eventually establish the genre.

Also, carnage! A lot less than you would expect, but there’s one particular scene so full of excessive gratuitous gore that it single-handedly foreshadows the great “video nasties” moral panic of the 1980s. According to the introduction at the theater (and the German Wikipedia, which I checked for my personal entertainment), Germany’s dubbed version back then was cut and the original put on the index (»indiziert«) and later even seized (»beschlagnahmt«). Of course it was!

Two hours later, it finally klicked as to what Phantasm’s compressed zombies reminded me of (besides evil Jawas): the red-hooded murderer from Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 Don’t Look Now. Also, I found Rob Finkelman’s terrific write-up on the 1971 bad-ass Plymouth ’Cuda, the movie’s most prominent prop right after the flying sphere.

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