I have to admit that it took me a long time until I saw Phantasm. Sure, I saw clips of it during various horror specials and documentaries. I was familiar with the general premise and aware of Angus Scrimm’s performance as the Tall Man. However, I only saw Phantasm for the first time six or seven years ago at the Mahoning Drive-in, during their annual Zombie Fest. It was drearier and colder than usual for a Memorial Day weekend. Fog crept in from surrounding farmlands, a perfect setting beneath that huge movie screen for a film that operates in total dream logic and takes place namely in a cemetery and funeral parlor. Everything about the movie, from Don Coscarelli’s direction to Fred Myrow’s haunting score, hooked me.
To be clear, Phantasm is a weird movie. The sequels are even stranger. The first film is about death, grief, trauma, and doing your best to live and survive in the face of all that. Other than Scrimm, the film stars A. Michael Baldwin as Mike, a teenager reeling from the death of his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury). Mike, along with Reggie (Reggie Bannister), face off against the Tall Man, who digs up bodies to take to another world, where he harnesses their souls and turns them into slaves.
From the early cemetery sequence, when the Tall Man disguises himself as an attractive woman, to the conversations Mike and Reggie have, so much of Phantasm deals with loss, specifically Mike’s initial denial that Jody is actually dead. In fact, Jody’s fate isn’t fully revealed until the closing minutes of the movie. It’s unclear if everything that transpired was just a dream, or a way for Mike to block out his brother’s actual death. Is Mike in denial? Maybe. The ambiguous ending leaves much open to interpretation, and the entire film feels fragmented, like someone struggling to get through the day to day in the fog of grief.
As heavy as Phantasm is thematically, it’s really carried by Scrimm’s performance. From his heavy footballs to the way he yells, “Boooooyyyy,” he’s a terrifying horror movie villain, one of the best of the late 20th Century. Everything about him, including his silver hair and black suit, to the fact he drives a hearse, resembles the grim reaper. I always felt that he never quite got the credit he deserved, and to me, he’s more chilling than the likes of Freddy or Jason. He’s death personified, an inescapable force, impossible to shake. Mike and Reggie can never fully defeat him. He continually reemerges. Heck, he even returns just before the credits roll, pulling Mike through the mirror. You can’t conquer death. You can hope to outrun it and maybe escape it for a short while, but it’ll find you.
Phantasm also resonates so much with me because, yes, while the film is about loss and dying, it’s also about living. This is most evident in the conversations and companionship between Reggie and Mike. Even if they know the odds may be stacked against them, they still take up arms against the Tall Man. They still do their best to go on living, despite the tragic loss of Jody. Reggie becomes like an adopted family member to Mike following Jody’s death. While the Tall Man represents evil and decay, Reggie is the opposite, offering Mike love, light, and guidance when he really needs it.
Phantasm has plenty of iconic moments, including the Tall Man walking down the corridors of the funeral parlor, to that ending, to the silver spheres. For all of its dream logic and hair-raising sequences, Phantasm is a movie about grief and how we go on living. Evey since I watched it for the first time at the Mahoning, I now screen it a few times a year. It’s a perfect October watch, atmospheric, uncanny, and eerie.