The 1979 Don Coscarelli film is near legendary thanks to its bizarre visuals, creepy dwarfs and terrifying villain known only as ‘The Tall Man.’ The movie may appear to be typical of the late 70′s/early 80′s horror genre on first glance, but it’s actually far weirder than that. The film whirls around the near mythical view of death as the young Mike tries to deal with the loss of his parents and is drawn to the activities of the nearby mausoleum and its creepy caretaker. After talking his older brother into investigating, they discover that there is a gateway to another dimension where bodies are being stacked like cord wood by demonic killer dwarfs.
The entire affair is overseen by the acrobatic eyebrow bearing Tall Man who is harvesting the bodies of the departed for his own nefarious ends. All in all, pure unbridled nightmare fuel.
Phantasm spawned a fair share of sequels and is currently in the ‘remake queue’ that movie-goers have grown so used to, but the original film is so brilliant that it reads like a fever dream. The terrifying spheres that the Tall Man employs to do his dirty work shoot through the air and sprout a number of deadly weapons designed to eviscerate his targets. The mausoleum is so spooky and sterile that it makes the viewer feel like a child visiting a place where s/he should not be. Actually, the entire film has a childlike sense of wonder and horror that is so vivid that I’m still amazed that it exists.
The crew of Digital Bits met with director Don Coscarelli to discuss the inner workings of the film and its three off-shoots:
I was in my teens, and what I can remember had mainly to do with my fleeing down endlessly long marble corridors, pursued by a chrome sphere intent on penetrating my skull with a wicked needle. There was a quite futuristic “sphere dispenser” out of which the orbs would emerge and begin chase. As far as I can remember, the spheres never caught up with me. They still haven’t.
At the beginning there was no master plan. The original Phantasm was intended to be a stand-alone film. However, after seeing how Phantasm II worked (starting the sequel the moment after the original ended), and the power of the fan response to the sequel and their speculations, the pattern of the storyline evolved easily. I now understand that the Tall Man is even more enterprising than I could ever have imagined, as I have come to believe he wants nothing less than world domination and the annihilation of our species.
The component of orphaned brothers, with the younger terrified that the older would leave him, was very important from the beginning. Many of the other themes were added as we were shooting and editing the film. Keep in mind that Phantasm was photographed and edited over a year and a half period, and some of the decisions, especially as to the ending, weren’t made until we were very well along.
Getting movies made is difficult for everybody, independent or mainstream. I’m not sure the Phantasm films have had much impact on the mainstream potentates who run the business. There was one studio head that was a fan, and he financed Phantasm II. That’s about it. So consequently, the offers I get are pretty low-end horror sequels. I’ve always had an aversion to doing sequels to other people’s films, and have turned down some interesting offers over the years, including Conan the Destroyer (bad script), and Nightmare on Elm Street II (seemed like bad karma at the time to do it). More recently, I’ve passed on another Warlock sequel and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2000. Of course, I’m still hoping they’ll throw me an Alien sequel someday…
If you are not familiar with this classic, I highly recommend you seek it out.