PlotOur story opens with a funeral. Mike Pearson’s parents have died. Thirteen-year-old Mike has been barred from the funeral by his older brother Jody, an aspiring musician. But Mike sneaks to the cemetery anyway to watch the proceedings. What he sees is shocking. Not only does he think that he sees dwarf-like creatures scurrying just out of sight behind headstones, but he witnesses the mortician, a tall man in a black suit, lift a coffin all by himself!
Apparently not, because Mike soon finds himself attacked by the Tall Man’s minions. These are dwarves, dressed like Jawas from Star Wars. Then the Tall Man himself attacks. He has several unusual powers, and when Mike cuts off his fingers, they subsequently come to life. This is enough to convince Jody that something evil is going on. Jody, Mike and their friend Reggie, a milkman who also plays guitar, check out the mortuary. Once there, they discover a portal to another world. They also learn that the dwarves are the dead who have been entrusted to the mortuary, e.g. their parents. These dead are sent through the portal to another world, where they are crushed down and made to work as slaves.
Why This Film WorksThis is another one the critics hated, but which has become a cult favorite. (Ignore the sequels.) The critics essentially said the film shows flashes of brilliance and the director had raw talent, but the film was a mess. But the film isn’t really a mess at all, it just doesn’t spell everything out. And as we’ve learned, a lot of these people who claim to be experts on film are incapable of understanding films that don’t spoon-feed them all points.
Phantasm is a solid film with moments of genius. The story is highly original, but it doesn’t spoon-feed you. Yet, it’s easy to follow and understand if you use your brain. For example, they never tell you what the Tall Man really is, i.e. they never explain his true nature. But his threat is obvious. It’s also obvious that he’s not human. But again, you have to pick this up from his behavior, because they don’t tell you “Hey, he’s not human!” What they do instead is show him doing things humans cannot do, like lifting a casket on his own or re-growing fingers. As for his nature, they give you clues to that too. For example, he can appear to be something he is not, like when he appears to be a scantily-clad woman to lure a man to the graveyard and when he appears in dreams. There is also a truly brilliant scene where you see him stop to smell what appears to be steam rising from dry ice.
The second reason this is creepy is that we don’t actually know what he thinks he’s smelling. It is equally possible that he can smell death or the soul or something along those lines and he smells it on Reggie. In effect, he has stopped to savor the smell of a victim he wants. You don’t know which is it or what he smells, but you know it’s bad news and you know this isn’t human. He then looks directly into the camera and thereby pulls you in... is it you he is really after? Or is he warning you that there is nothing you can do to help Reggie?
None of these things are explained, but that’s not a problem unless you need everything explained to you. To the contrary, by not explaining these things, you have a brilliantly creepy scene that is open to many interpretations depending on what would be most creepy to you. It’s actually an inspired bit of filmmaking.
The main theme involves the struggle against the Tall Man. The Tall Man represents the fear of the unknown that accompanies death. Most people think of death as involving either a blinking out of existence or some presumably happy afterlife. But we all have a fear in the back of our minds that maybe... just maybe... there is something worse waiting for us. That is what Phantasm delves into: Mike learns that death is a nightmare of enslavement to an evil, cruel master on a hellish alien world. But again, this is not something the characters stop to explain through exposition. Once again, you need to pick this up from seeing the dwarves, from their speculation about what the dwarves are, from their brief five word acknowledgement (“What about mom and dad?!”) that their dead friends and family could be among the dwarves, from the nature of the portal and from the brief glimpse through the portal. Presumably, that’s too much for the reviewers to grasp, but it really is laid out quite simply if you pay attention to the film.
And what do we get in exchange for this ambiguity? Well, you get a movie that lets an active mind run wild. You get a mystery buried within a film where you weren’t expecting one. You get clues that you need to assemble and base around educated guesses as to what is going on, who the Tall Man is, what he wants, and what each part means. That allows you to imagine so much more than the movie is able to provide in its run time; indeed, you can imagine whole worlds of backstory... as people have done on the net. And that gives you is a very rich film. That’s a decent tradeoff.
Or consider the ice-sniffing scene discussed above. Most films would use CGI to show the creature transforming from human into its natural form. But in so doing, they would inject a cartoony monster into the story which will lose half the audience. Not here. Here the director had the actor stop and sniff the air in a very non-human and creepy way. Thus, $0 resulted in an iconic moment that directors with access to tons of cash never would think to do.
Indeed, part of what makes this film so inventive, I suspect, is the need to work around the low budget. The budget was $300,000, borrowed from friends and family. The director’s mother made some of the special effects. The cast and crew were friends. It was filmed over weekends over the course of one year. The car was borrowed. And the director, Coscarelli, handled all the technical aspects because he couldn’t afford to hire a cameraman or an editor.
Nevertheless, in finding ways to tell this story without CGI, without special effects, and without a huge budget, the director created a series of iconic horror images that all horror fans know today; he also netted around $12 million at the box office. Clearly, a smart director not only can get by without money, but can thrive in that environment. This film is the posterboy for the fact that money means nothing when it comes to making quality films. What matters is the quality of the story and the creativity of the presentation. And the more crutches directors rely upon, the more their films cost... but they aren’t getting any better.