Dictionary.com's definition of a phantasm is "in Platonic philosophy, objective reality as observed by the five senses." Another definiton it gives is simply, "a notion". And if you watch this film from beginning to end you will see why this makes all the sense in the world, yet it is still an abstruse concept that is meant to be exactly what it is.
The film begins with a funeral of one of Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie's (Reggie Bannister) best friends. Jody's little brother, Mikey ( A Michael Baldwin) is a precocious kid who can't seem to stay in one place and follows his big brother everywhere he goes. Hence he is at the funeral but is surreptitiously hiding out in the bushes. As the funeral ends, he sees the caretaker lift a casket all by himself and put it into his truck. This is the nascency of the bizaare rituals that encompass the film.
Michael decides to investigate the strange looking mansion where the cemetery rests. Once he breaks into the house, he is chased by some strange Jawa looking creatures and by a sphere that seems to come out of nowhere and drains your head of blood. He does escape and finally gets his big brother to believe him when he says that things aren't quite right up at the Morningside Cemetery. Now, up until this point, the film is quite linear. You have your classic set-up, a spooky looking mansion where the dead are taken and your typical stupid characters that do the traditional scary movie things, like going to investigate a haunted house all by yourself, gratuitous breast shots, some eerie music and dark nights. But that is where the title "typical horror film" ends and it crosses over into Rod Serling territory. From here on out, it just goes weird, but in a goosebump inducing way that keeps you frozen in your seat.
Don Coscarelli can take all of the praise and/or blame for this eccentric film. He wrote, produced, directed, was the DP, the editor and as another reviewer so aptly pointed out, he probably swept the floors at night and fetched coffee for those on the set. This is his incarnation. I also happen to agree with other viewers that say that this film has one of the most haunting yet mellifluous scores which is on par with Carpenter's Halloween theme. Both are intricate pieces to the presence of the film. Words like haunting, eerie, creepy and forbidding all come to mind when you hear the score. It is also uncanny to see some of the similarities to A Nightmare On Elm Street and Phantasm. Nightmare was a little more clear with what it was trying to say but both films have an overtly murky and dream like exploration into realms that many of us have yet to understand.
The underlying theme in this film is the unsolved questions that plague many of us when we wonder what happens when you die. Most of us believe that you go to Heaven or Hell. But those are just theories. And if theories are unproven then what is stop you from believing that this movie could really be the answer to those questions? As the tag line for the film so poignantly points out, "If this one doesn't scare you, you're already dead." What if all of this was true? What if you could be stolen and made into something that you did not ask to become? Who is the Tall Man and what is he doing here in our world? One of the most harrowing yet well done plot pieces is when Mikey goes to the girl's house and finds an old picture of the Tall Man sitting on a horse carriage, looking like it is circa 1776. This leaves the viewer ripe with questions.
Phantasm will leave you with more questions than answers but I will say this about the film. In a day and age where you get prosaic, banal and myopic efforts like ( take your pick of most of the horror that has "graced" our screens since the Scream and Blair Witch craze) and you compare them to films like Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Phantasm, you quickly realize that the 70's and early 80's was the genesis of the horror film. I realize horror probably dates back to Nosferatu and it became respected with Psycho, but to look at the films that were born in the 70's and 80's, it's a veritable, indefeasible list of some of the most revered and imitated horror films of all time. Now that I have seen Phantasm I can easily see the mark it has left on other films.
9 out of 10----As I said, I still can't tell you what this film is all about nor can I tell you what it all means or how it all ends, all I can say is that it made me feel something strange with it's disingenuous stroke of the brush. This is a film that absolutely demands a second and third viewing....which is what I am about to do right now. BOY!!!!!!!