PHANTASM stands alone in American horror – even of 1979 – because of its emphasis on the fuckin weird. Many horror movies are about the fear of a dude with a knife or ax. That makes sense. We know his immediate goal and why it threatens us. Or sometimes it’s supernatural, or it’s a monster. That brings in the fear of the unknown, but we still sort of know most of the time. It’s gonna bite us.

But PHANTASM creeps us out by giving us a bad guy our minds aren’t used to wrapping around: a mean old man at a funeral home who is unusually strong, bleeds yellow, his body parts can turn into bugs, he commands deadly flying metal orbs, and he steals bodies from graveyards and crushes them into weird little dwarves in Jawa robes who do his bidding. It’s a scheme we have seen in less than 50 movies in the entire history of cinema up until this point so it isn’t worn out yet.

PhantasmIt doesn’t hurt that the hero, Mike, is a kid, a loner orphan who spies on his cool older brother Jody because he (correctly) suspects he’s gonna ditch him again. He accidentally sees some of the weird shit going on in the funeral home but when he tries to tell his brother it has the feel of the kids who, to make life more interesting, start saying that their neighbor is a witch or the house at the end of the street is haunted. So you can’t blame Jody for not believing him. But this movie, although completely deadpan and never outwardly comedic, has a hilarious way of dealing with that. First Jody suggests what Mike saw was “probably just a gopher in heat.” Later he asks “Are you sure it wasn’t that retarded kid Timmy up the street?” Then Mike gets chased by the Tall Man, slams a door on his hand, and slices off his fingers. The fingers are alive though and try to crawl away like worms, but he catches one in a box and brings it to his brother. Jody peeks into the box. Is it still in there? Is it still alive? Yes, it wiggles around. He shuts the box. “Okay, I believe you.”

And that’s all we need to transition from the “nobody will ever believe me” part of the story to the “let’s hunt it down and kill it” part.

The budget is tiny, but they were smart about how to make the cheesy effects work. They’re so surreal they have kind of a shock factor – you’re not used to a metal sphere shooting at your head. And the weird shit happens pretty frequently, there’s not as much sitting around talking as you might expect. The repetitive, sort of Goblin-esque keyboard score adds to the eeriness.

Even at the climax it doesn’t turn into standard horror. The Tall Man has a portal into another world, the kid’s sidekick (Reggie Bannister) is a middle-aged, guitar playing ice cream truck driver who is a survivor of male pattern baldness, and the kid uses such horror-fighting techniques as attaching a bullet to the end of a hammer and hitting it. Not exactly by-the-numbers cat-and-mouse-shit.

This is a truly inventive and enjoyable little movie, there’s not really another one like it. But I’m not sure what Phantasm means.


This entry was posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 7:45 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Phantasm”

  1. Caught the remaster of this over at the Amazon VOD. I’ve only seen it maybe once prior, so I don’t have well-grooved memories of how crappy the old, pre-remastered version was, but it certainly looks and sounds pretty good. I did not read up to remind myself of the plot or spoilers, so pretty much all I remembered was Angus Scrimm, plus the ball, plus the dwarves. I had no recollection of the basic plot or climax or the relative screen time of the aforementioned Scrimm, ball, or dwarves.

    SPOILERS for a 35+ years-old film

    Vern is right. First and foremost, this film traffics in the weird, weird, weird. It has a very disjointed, choppy feel. Aside from the totally bonkers core mythology and iconography (the ball, dwarves, yellow-goo-bleeding, tall man, the alternate world), there another of other weird things that just feel off and incoherent. The plot adheres to a fairly conventional structure and achieves a resolution, but the journey is full of inconsistencies, inexplicable moments, and dream-like doubling back. Scenes cut away too soon or are intercut weirdly. Characters show up in places in ways that defy our sense of space and time–and, thus, probably, also the laws of physics. Mike is always right behind his brother, never detected, and presumably on foot in at least some of these instances. People complain that they can’t see some other character “anywhere,” then, without moving, they suddenly do see the character. The Tall Man seems essentially unkillable and able to project himself to different places in space. He plunges down a “1000 foot” mine shaft and is then sealed in by a couple of good sized rocks. Reggie inexplicably shows up at the mortuary looking like a million bucks when his most recent previous scene would have us believe he was a goner, or at least in serious peril and very rough shape (He also casually reassures us that that Mike’s cousin and sister who abducted shrieking in a dwarf-filled VW managed to escape off-camera). With a few exceptions, the main characters seem to exist mostly in a world all their own, rarely intersecting with anyone other than the three other principal characters or the dwarves It’s very clear who is in the foreground, and the only things in the background are that synth score and the physical settings.

    The reveal that this has been a dream clears up all of this and elevates the film to a kind of beautifully trippy waking nightmare piece of art. Although those weird incongruities and logic gaps are reframed as completely explicable instances of garden variety nightmare illogic. Moreover, Mike’s stalker-like clinginess toward Jody, and the running theme that Jody will not allow Mike to follow him where he is going, take on a new, poignant significance. In large part, the nightmare represents Mike wrestling with his grief and denial. And then, of course, the obligatory last scene gotcha.

    My guess is that a substantial proportion of the film’s narrative and visual (space/time) illogic was intentional and due to budget constraints or just continuity flubs and difficult choices in making a coherent film out of the available footage. But the conceit that this has all been a nightmare ends up making all that stuff work in its favor. This is a weird and mediocre film that is elevated to greatness by its imagery, mythology, and the covering explanation that all its seams and WTF moments can be reframed as part and parcel of the phenomenology of lucid nightmares.

  2. Sorry, I meant to say that my guess is that a lot of the illogic was UNintentional, but the conceit…..


    ….that this has all been a dream gives the film an excuse for such incoherence and general weirdness.

  3. Totally agree with your opinion Skani. I didn’t like or respect this movie when I first saw it and now I really love it even though it doesn’t 100% work. No theaters are playing the Remastered edition here so I’m looking forward to it on video. PHANTASM V RAVAGER much less so.

  4. Yeah, the response to Ravager seems mixed at best. How worthwhile are the others? I think I’ve seen Part 2 once 20-odd years ago.

  5. None of the sequels are as good as the original but they are much crazier. They too don’t make much sense but have some fun imagery and scenes. They have the issue, in my opinion, of explaining too much (origin of the balls, the tall man, etc.) which is almost unavoidable for an ongoing series. Mostly watch them if you enjoy the Reggie and crazy imagery. Please note: I enjoy them but like HALLOWEEN and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the original works best in a vacuum (I like the PHANTASM sequels more than the NIGHTMARE and HALLOWEEN ones by-the-way).

  6. That sounds about right. My experience has been that a sequel is a pretty low-risk proposition, because if it’s bad or otherwise doesn’t mesh with a previous entry, you can just dismiss it or sequester in its own little mental nook. I’ll give 2 a whirl sooner or later and then take it from there.

  7. For those of you who keep track: PHANTASM is from now on also not banned anymore in Germany. (And no, I don’t know who would be offended enough or why to ban this movie, but it happened.)

  8. Do other countries have to suffer under the terror reign of Mediabook releases too or is it just a German thing?

    To clarify: Even if the physical media home video market is apparently still pretty prophitable in Germany, it’s not THAT prophitable, so most movies with a very limited mainstream appeal (like the old Mario Bava movies or even horror classics like the PHANTASM series) only get released in limited Media Books. A Media Book is a package that looks like a book and contains the movie on Blu-Ray, the same movie on DVD (WHY!?!?!? Oh yes, to make it more expensive!) and maybe another disc full of bonus material.

    The thing is, as you can imagine, these releases look cool, but are motherfucking expensive. Basically the absolute minimum is 26€, normally 29€ and more, while a “normal” brand new blockbuster blu-ray release is available for 12-16€. These things are basically lootboxes for movie collectors, because while everybody hates them, they won’t go away, because too many people still buy them. They have to, if they want the movie (and are unwilling or -able to import it), because those greedy fucklabels won’t put out a normal version. Maybe in a few years, but most likely not.

    And I’m not gonna lie. They are cool. I had the new Media Book for Bava’s BLACK SABBATH in my hand today and really considered buying it, but 29€ was too expensive for a movie that I got for 10€ on DVD 15 years ago. Even if this release is (unlike the old DVD) anamorphic and HD remastered and shit. Next to it was the mediabook of PHANTASM, also for 29€. And next to it the mediabook of part 2, for the same price. And the mediabooks for parts 3 and 4. I would have to pay over 120€ for the whole series! And don’t think they get much cheaper over time! They stay the same price and then get oop.

    In conclusion: Fuck that shit.

  9. Never heard of these. Might be a German issue. I usually buy my Arrow Special Editions from Amazon.uk ( they however are expensive in Sweden) and they are fairly priced.

  10. Our arthouse channel finally gave this movie its German TV premiere and I have to say that it makes an interesting companion piece to PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (which I also saw for the first time a few days ago). Both are fucking weird movies about about corpse re-animators from outer space that don’t make much sense at all, but while one is just a Trash movie, that suffers from the incompetence of everybody involved, PHANTASM’s randomness was intentional and the director really knew what he was doing.

    Also the JJ Abrams restauration looks beautiful! Don’t know what the movie looked like before, but this is the best looking 70s movie that I’ve ever seen! And I didn’t even watch it in HD or 4K!

  11. Despite my rant about Mediabooks and other senseless cashgrabbing special edition releases above, I actually bought the MB for this movie, because it was on sale and cost less than the regular not-special Blu-Ray. An interesting extra about it is the book part. Because yes, a Mediabook is really a small book, with pages of paper in the middle and the Blu-Ray’s/DVDs in the cover. And in this case, it contains the expert assessment that the label comissioned, to get this movie unbanned.

    The professor who made it talks in depth about the fairy tale motives, the surrealism, the ways violence is shown, used by the protagonists and how it would be received by modern audiences, the critical reception, the filmhistoric relevance, etc. It’s quite an interesting read and also a nice example of how the German youth protection laws work. You can’t just show the ratings board the movie and say: “Hey, an average episode of CRIMINAL MINDS is harder than this!” No, you need an in depth analysis from an acclaimed professor!

  12. I feel like I could just continue my rant about German labels’ obsession with overpriced mediabooks right here. Because I seemed to have an epiphany around them, triggered by the announcement of an upcoming limited editon Mediabook of Jonathan Frakes’ THUNDERBIRDS movie.

    Let’s be honest: Who wants a pricey special edition of a movie like that? One of the biggest box office bombs of the 21st century and not even one that has been rehabilitated by the public as something that didn’t deserve to bomb.

    My theory is that they release these things for the scalpers. Prettty much every time one of these things come out, a huge part of them is immediately snatched up by assholes who resell them for even higher prices on eBay and co. And I think that’s what the label is counting on. You know that physical media is struggling (although not as much in Germany, but still), so that seems like a surefire way to earn some money. Release ANY movie as limited special edition (the more popular the movie, the more expensive and special the edition will be), see how most of it is gonna get bought by scalpers, enjoy the profit!

    Sounds plausible? It does to me!

  13. It’s a legitimate market need. Where are all those hipsters going to get their ironic Thunderbirds limited edition steelbook edition otherwise?

    The PHANTASM box set is probably my favorite bit of physical media: It’s got a great booklet with production material from all the movies and a few essays, all the films on disk, and a (plastic, but still shiny) life-size model of the metal ball.
    Still available from Amazon direct at £80 now for some reason – I got it at £40 or so when it came out, so maybe there is something to your physical media scalper idea.

    Vern – more than 15 years late, but here’s the definition for PHANTASM that opens the box set booklet:

    “The delusion of a disordered mind. A phantom. A spirit. A ghost.”

    Lines up with the dictionary entry.

  14. In fairness the THUNDERBIRDS franchise and the extended Gerry AndersonVerse does (at least in the UK) have a pretty loyal fanbase who will buy anything, even the dodgy and pretty unfaithful live action remake where the man himself was given the cold shoulder by the producers. Couple that with nostalgic 00s kids who fondly remember it from the days when their mum would return from the Woolworths with a new bargain bin DVD every Thursday, add in hardcore Busted fans, and I could see it not being the worst selling Steelbook in the world.

    I’m not saying it’s not both very funny and kind of suspicious that there’s a Steelbook of Jonathan Frakes’ THUNDERBIRDS out there in the world though.

    I still want the WARRIORS OF VIRTUE Steelbook though.

    Just before the pandemic a whole batch of the Making of books for FRAKESBIRDS suddenly turned up in a local budget store. I wonder where they’d been for 15 years.

  15. It’s not even a Steelbook, which is usually sold for only slightly more money than the regular Amaray, but a Mediabook (A real book with readable pages and of course the discs inside), which can cost up to 80€, depending on the popularity of the movie and the amount of bonus discs in it, although this one seems with 29€ more on the lower end of expensive special edition. But yeah, maybe it will be unexpectedly often imported to the UK.
    They also announced on the same day the EXORCIST spoof REPOSSESSED, also as limited edition mediabook, but I can see that one sell better, considering that it has at least some part of cult status. (And is really one of the better ZAZ rip-offs with Leslie Nielsen.)

    And really, despite all my bitching about these editions, I understand the labels. We all know physical media is struggling. And these editions are at least one way to keep them going and probably to finance the next unbanning of a popular horror movie. Sometimes they later get re-released in normal Amarays (Like the whole PHANTASM series), sometimes the Limited Special Edition is all we get (like the Mario Bavas or Raimi’s CRIMEWAVE). So yeah, as frustrating as it is from a consumer POV, I am not as angry about their existence anymore. If these things pay for the new HD release of another former VHS- or crappy-budget-DVD-only title, so be it.

  16. Sorry, I did read your previous posts about Mediabooks but somehow my brain defaulted to Steelbook.

    Here are some Mediabook predictions I have it they haven’t already happened;
    . HELP! I’M A FISH!

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