Don Coscarelli Review – Phantasm (1979)

When it comes to discussions about the “greatest American horror directors of all time”, Don Coscarelli’s name is one that doesn’t appear too often. A Libyan/American filmmaker, Don Coscarelli Directed his first feature length film – Jim The World’s Greatest released in 1975 – at the young age of 19. To this day he has only Directed 11 films, 7 of which were of the horror genre, and an episode of the Masters Of Horror TV series. However, what makes Don Coscarelli’s career stand out amongst others, is the fact that on paper, in terms of critical and fan reception, Don Coscarelli hasn’t made a bad film. Each different type of film that he’s made has received very good reviews, if not, critical acclaim from 1975 to 2016. However, Don Coscarelli mainly reserves himself as an Independant filmmaker, and as such does not share the same vast and varied career as his contemporaries such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and Sam Raimi.

However, his work is always fondly remembered by his fans, and out of all the films that he’s made, there’s always been one long running series that his fans continue to flood back to: the Phantasm series. The original Phantasm was finished in 1979 and over the period of 27 years, four sequels were produced, each with very long gaps between them. Over the years, the Phantasm series picked up a dedicated fanbase called the ‘Phans’ who enjoy each movie that is released and help give the Phantasm series it’s cult classic status. But my question is: is that cult status warranted, or is the Phantasm series an overhyped series who’s flaws are severely overlooked.

A woman screams and covers her eyes, which are then superimposed over her hands

The first Phantasm was made when Don Coscarelli was 25. It was a low-budget independant feature made on $300,000, and it managed to rake in a highly successful $12 million at the box office. It was Don Coscarelli’s first foray into the horror genre after his childhood love of horror films, and it was his third movie overall. However, as much as this movie was successful, it took a while for the movie to gain it’s cult status. Unlike films like The Evil Dead, there was no ‘major event’ that pushed Phantasm into the public consciousness. A dedicated viewership, ongoing positive reviews and scholarly analysis’ of the movie pushed it onto the radar of future horror fans, and the creation of sequel after sequel only affirmed it’s cult status and success.

But is it as good as it’s made out to be?

On a positive note, the story of Phantasm is one that plays with a lot of good ideas that one doesn’t really see in 1970s horror movies, or even horror movies to this day. For example, the main characters of Phantasm – Michael, Jody and Reggie – are firmly personified throughout the story as ‘everyman’ characters. Not the stereotypical ‘everyman’ characters, or the archetypal ‘everyman’ characters, or even characters with quirks that try and give them an ‘everyman’ personality. Michael, Jody and Reggie truly feel like average, American people with likable personalities that one can empathise with. Michael, a teenage character, is very believable as a teenage character and his motivations and actions propel his characterization levels above most archetypal teenage characters in horror. Michael is a passionate, caring character with a lot of sense, curiosity and ingenuity. In a genre that usually treats teenage characters with such banality or disrespect, it’s very refreshing to see a teenage character that a viewer can actually get behind and understand, and all of this comes from Don Coscarelli’s fantastic writing of the character, not so much from A. Michael Baldwin’s wonky performance. In contrast, Reggie and Jody are the more skeptical characters who are just as caring, supportive and as friendly as Michael, even though it’s plain to see that Michael is the main character out of all three. All in all, I found these three characters very likable. They feel very human and ordinary, and the relatable human ordinariness that these characters personify is what caused me to latch onto these characters throughout the films more terrifying moments. After watching Phantasm, a big part of me wished that more horror films nowadays utilized similar characterizations instead of relying on bland archetypes with quirks instead of having characters with definable personalities.

However, the strongest point of Phantasm is the menagerie of good, original horror ideas. Phantasm is a very bizarre film where the horror elements aren’t described or explained. Instead, Phantasm is a film full of very strange elements and the intense fear of the unknown, so much so that at times the film feels quite psychological as it plays on strange and unknown fears in a relatively normal situation. For example, as a viewer, I know that the Tall Man is frightening, but it’s sometimes hard to understand why I feel that he is frightening, as he doesn’t resemble a horrific monster nor is he a vicious murderer. There’s something that’s not quite right about his character, and there’s something intensely intimidating about him. That particular subtle element of the unknown is what gives Phantasm it’s horror credentials. Nothing in the film is obvious or easily recognised, and in a way, I feel that this lack of explanation or backstory helped me empathise with the lead characters because they don’t know what’s going on either. By not explaining the horrors such as The Tall Man or the hooded dwarfs, I felt like was in the same situation as the lead characters. I felt the mystery of the situation, and that mystery drove my curiosity into each new scene, much like the mystery drove the characters into each new frightening situation. I was trying to work out what the Tall Man and the hooded dwarfs were at the same time as the main characters. Even when the dwarfs are semi-explained near the end of the film, there’s still a lot of questions that remain, and I was left mystified by the whole movie by the time I had finished all 89 minutes.

Nonetheless, what Phantasm does really well is creating a fantastic atmosphere through the combination of cinematography, lighting, set design, and mis en scene. The atmosphere throughout the majority of Phantasm is not only macabre, but very dreamlike and subtle. The setting of the mortuary – corridors of white marble lit sparingly with hard, shadowy lighting – is absolutely striking and has an emptiness to it that creates an unfamiliar, strange, almost surreal feeling as the characters explore the setting, and it also creates a hard juxtaposition to the normal looking houses and bars that crop up throughout the movie. This juxtaposition separates the unknown fear from the comfortable familiar, making the more frightening sequences all the more frightening as the contrast feels more jarring and uncomfortable, albeit in a good way, because it provides context of threat. This is something that many films either don’t do or can’t do properly, but Phantasm pulls it off quite well in my opinion.

Finally, I want to address the ‘twist’ at the end of the movie. This twist has been done so many times before in so many movies and TV shows, and it usually never helps the story in anyway, usually just derailing the story for the sake of a fake-out. That being said, the twist at the end of Phantasm doesn’t actually derail the narrative, in my opinion, it actually strengthens it. When I saw the twist I thought back to the actions of the major character and what he did, what he learnt, and how he treated the fellow characters throughout the whole of the film; and it all seemed to make perfect sense. Film scholars have analyzed this film and have stated that Phantasm is about mourning and death, and I completely agree with that interpretation. The twist confirms this interpretation in a very clever way, and this interpretation is also my own. Phantasm is about loss and the dealing of such loss, where everything strange and unknown is villainized in a way to rationally cope with ones own emotions whilst experiencing and exploring the feeling of  mourning. It’s an incredibly mature sentiment and for a filmmaker to explore these themes whilst at the age of 25, it’s incredibly impressive to witness. Well done, Don Coscarelli, well done.

Although the film has one major flaw, that flaw being that the acting isn’t very good, this flaw is overshadowed by the film’s intelligent ideas and very clever and original approach to the horror genre. Phantasm isn’t a horror film that’s style over substance, it has both style and substance that make it stand out amongst not just the horror films of the 1970s, but it stands out amongst horror films to this day. Phantasm is one of the most original horror films that I’ve seen. I watched it when I was just getting into horror movies many, many years ago and even though I have a bit of nostalgia for the film, upon rewatching it I still came away feeling like I’ve just watched a cleverly effective low-budget horror movie that definitely stands out amongst the big budget horror flicks of 1970s America.

I once saw someone describe Phantasm as one of the scariest movies ever made, and whilst I don’t completely agree with that sentiment, I can understand where they were coming from. Phantasm is scary in a way that’s not usually seen in horror cinema. It’s fresh, original and stands out in a genre littered with underwhelming movies. In conclusion, I whole-heartedly recommend Phantasm. It’s a little rough around the edges, but the film’s great content makes up for any shortcomings that come through.

Now let’s see if the sequels hold up just as well…

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