(USA - 1979)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm
Genre: Horror/Fantasy/Surrealism/Mystery/Sci-Fi
Director: Don Coscarelli
Screenplay: Don Coscarelli
Cinematography: Don Coscarelli
Composer: Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave

24-year-old writer-director-producer-photographer-editor Don Coscarelli announced himself with his third feature, a classic of mindfuck cinema that’s one of the essentials of America’s most fertile horror decade. Much of Coscarelli’s success stems from understanding what makes the Italian brand effective, and while there were earlier attempts at the giallo such as Alfred Sole’s Communion (though it borrows at least as much from Nicolas Roeg masterpiece Don’t Look Now), I don’t know of any American horror before or since that’s done surreal nightmare driven cinema Italian style so well. In most cases, American horrors would fear even trying because dreams thrive on incoherence, and that scares the skittish producers.

Coscarelli’s movie maintains the capability of being genuinely scary by refusing to follow the obvious, in fact any obvious path, choosing a series of quirky vignettes over the connect the dots setup and payoff horror by numbers style that’s so predictable exploding our eardrums is the only manner in which this schlock can garner a reaction. Phantasm has its share of weaknesses, particularly the lack of characterization and amateur hour acting of everyone but A. Michael Baldwin & Angus Scrimm, but when I say it’s all over the place I mean it in the best possible way.

The first half is somewhat slow, a peculiar mix of pastimes with the horror, fantasy and supernatural elements increasing as time progresses. The movie works because the technical aspects create a subtle tension. Even during the most pedestrian scenes, Coscarelli makes us feel some deep seeded disturbance through the camera and lighting techniques; the framing, camera movement, color palette, and sometimes material itself, as star Mike is always spying on someone, put us at unease even though all seems well, if a bit morbid and paranoid. Scenes we don’t expect that obviously aren’t going to lead to the characters being slaughtered, for instance Mike’s big brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) hippie jamming with his best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), only adds to the uncanny nature of the uncharacteristic viewing experience.

The Suspiria style score by Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave is the crucial aspect to Coscarelli’s moody gem. I’ve seen it compared to John Carpenter’s Halloween score, which took lessons from Goblin in it’s own right, but while perhaps not as memorable or scary, it’s actually a much deeper work. Though the score is repetitive in the most effective sort of way, altering the same basic rhythm similar to Claudio Simonetti and co., it slowly reveals far more shades and subtle shifts than are initially apparent. Modified just enough to fit varying scenes, Myrow & Seagrave’s music predictably is at times creepy, mysterious, and unsettling, but among other feelings and emotions it’s also curious, excited, and determined.

The first two films of Don Coscarelli - Jim the World’s Greatest and Kenny & Company – established the director’s specialty of seeing the adult world through the senses of his youthful protagonist, a track he continues to roll down in Phantasm. His hero Mike (A. Michael Baldwin, no relation to the clan) is a young, vulnerable, somewhat goofy 13-year-old still suffering from post-traumatic nightmares due to his parents premature death. The movie grapples with questions of why humans die, and where we go after death. Not surprisingly, Mike refuses to let the dead go, and having cost Jody a chance at being a successful recording artist he perpetually fears his brother will also abandon him. The horror aspect proposes that rather than going to heaven we could just as easily be transformed into something we not only didn’t ask for, but would very obviously rather not be.

While Phantasm isn’t as artistically accomplished as the best work of David Lynch, at times it’s downright sophomoric and cheesy, it maintains the balance between having enough direction to appear to actually be taking place while being fantastic enough to suggest an altered nightmare state. Regularly cutting form the main action to starting visions, you often wonder what you are seeing and why. Coscarelli utilizes filters and high saturation where artistically interesting, particularly in these brief cutaways. However, rather than basing the entire film on that technique, and thus creating an otherworldly atmosphere, Coscarelli grounds the film with a mix of bright naturally lit day scenes and underlit night scenes where only the key aspects are illuminated at all. When in stride, Phantasm maintains enough balance between real world and dream logic to make us reflect inward. Similar to Lynch, Coscarelli walks the tightrope by expanding our perception, unafraid our desire for logic will overtake the sensual experience he’s providing.

Featuring the icon of imposing pallid malignance known as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), a flying sphere with retractable spear blades and drill bits that mounts your forehead and sucks your brain dry, a hand that transforms into a flying critter, sinister jawas, and aliens who sometimes bleed yellow, Phantasm is so far out that love it or loathe it, you surely won’t forget it. Unfortunately, Coscarelli himself seems to have forgotten what made Phantasm so memorable, as his three sequels only succeed in doing what most every other sequel does, soil the original.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *