The Test of Time: Phantasm (1979)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Don Coscarelli

Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, and Angus Scrimm


Everybody is scared of something. Mice, feet, spiders hair, other people’s socks. It’s the little things that get us all. However, it’s the big things that will kill us, like sharks, rabid deer, hungry bears, aliens, or...Tall Men. More specifically, the Tall Man.

With the recent news of the Phantasm franchise coming back from the dead for Phantasm V: Ravager (though with a new director), it’s an interesting time to revisit one of the weirdest, most surreal movies ever made. Last time around, The Test of Time investigated the Hannibal Lecter series and found that if its a good horror franchise, nothing will keep a good idea dead forever.The same can be said for this one.

Under the examination: Phantasm.

Actually, the recent news of Phantasm V reminded me of the series for the second time in the last few months, making me want to revisit Mike, Jody, and Reggie. I’m a fan of the Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave podcast where Brian Quinn (of Impractical Jokers) recently discovered the films and became fascinated by them, notably with a take on the Tall Man’s "tranny trick” on unsuspecting men that's pretty damn funny. 

The Tall Man welcomes you...

THE STORY: Phantasm revolves around a kid named Mike, who after recently losing his folks, now has fears about losing his brother Jody, too. Mike won’t leave his brother’s side, which unfortunately means he witnesses shit he isn’t supposed to...like the Tall Man moving caskets without his supportive weight belt on. Things really start to get weird when the Tall Man comes after the two brothers and their ice cream salesman buddy Reggie, who all do their best to take down the local undertaker/grave robber/soul stealer. Can Mike and company prevent the Tall Man from killing their whole town, or is it only a matter of time before that shiny metal ball drills through all of their heads?

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Any scene that the Tall Man appears in is a good scene. I’m not sure where Don Coscarelli found Mr. Angus Scrimm, but that’s one hell of a catch. Oh sure, taller men are out there (like me), but Scrimm has the look of a undertaker/soul stealer, which isn’t easy to come by. It’s not a showy role like a Freddy, but that’s a good thing. He doesn’t need pages of dialogue, and he doesn’t need to be on the screen every minute. Instead, he lurks in the shadows and waits for the right time to strike (well, unless he’s out for his daily walk).

Even grave robbers need exercise.

As for the other characters, Mike is probably the strongest as the movie’s very, very simple themes of understanding and conquering fear revolves around him. We seem he mature over the course of 90 or so minutes, and its easy to root for him. Reggie is the second best character. Why? Because he’s a bald, guitar-playing ice cream man who still manages to be a badass. What’s not to like about that.

For a cheap movie (around $300,000) with a young director (Coscarelli was only around 24), Phantasm has some great stuff here mainly with Coscarelli's visuals, which all works damn well. Whatever dimension the Tall Man and his band of evil Dinks are from, it’s interesting and unique. I like the fact that the film never really attempts to explain it. It’s just there, and it’s weird. It's not often that a movie can create a completely unique world and visual elements. Speaking of weird, the metal ball, which drills into people’s heads (which nearly earned the movie a X rating), still plays as gruesome and iconic as ever. Sure, the effect itself is dated, but it’s so bizarre that no one questions whether it still looks good or not. Oh, and the music works too, though at times it’s a little too John Carpenterish (that's all I have to say about that).

Shiny ball=brain drains.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: (Spoilers...fyi). The ending has always bugged the hell out of me. I’ve always hated the “it was all a dream scenario...or was it?” conclusion. It always feel like either laziness or a lack of ideas at the end. Either way, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.Perhaps it would have worked better if there had been more of a transition between putting the Tall Man in the hole and Mike waking up to find Reggie still alive (he was stabbed by the "tranny trick" version of the Tall Man). It's never worked for me. (End spoiler).

The only character who I don't like is Jody, who doesn't really add much to the movie beyond having a killer jean jacket and badass car. He's just there, playing the typical older brother without much depth or interest. Now with the production elements, it would be easy to slap them around, but this is a nearly a 35-year old low budget movie. If the thing doesn't look dated, then something's wrong here. 

The most powerful ice cream man outside of Raekwon.

THE VERDICT: Phantasm is one of the f*ckin weirdest, most original films I've ever seen, and it holds up for what it is. This isn't the type of flick that someone can pick apart too closely because that's not what it's made for. Bizarre and gruesome is the name of the game, and Phantasm wins where so many others haven't.




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