blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Phantasm (1979, Don Coscarelli)

Angus Scrimm stars in PHANTASM, directed by Don Coscarelli for Embassy Pictures.

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is not any kind of cinematic wonder. Coscarelli is a decent director in terms of composition and his screenplay has some inventive moments. Mostly, the writing credit is due because of his enthusiasm for the content. There’s nothing like seeing adults defer to the wisdom of a teenage boy–and A. Michael Baldwin pulls off the performance quite well. In Phantasm‘s world of approximately fifteen speaking parts and maybe three non-speaking (maybe), Baldwin runs the film.

Lots of Phantasm plays like an adolescent fantasy. Even ignoring Baldwin following brother Bill Thornbury on a date and watching him fool around with the girl (unintentionally preventing her from killing him), Phantasm‘s full of stuff for boys. There’s a gun porn scene, which is hilarious in how lame it comes across–Thornbury telling Baldwin to shoot to kill and so on–it’s hard to fault Phantasm for such tangents, because the whole thing is just goofy.

Maybe Phantasm isn’t scary, but it’s cool. Bad guy Angus Scrimm mysteriously appearing with crazy backlighting, cool. The silver ball thing with a fountain of blood spurting out–the design of this killing device itself–cool. Phantasm makes up for the lack of artistry with some good ideas and that enthusiasm. Coscarelli somehow transcends suspension of disbelief here–knowing how a shot works, understanding the sound effects’ effect–makes Phantasm all the more enjoyable. It’s an admirable film–Coscarelli just as easily couldn’t have pulled it off.

But Coscarelli doesn’t exactly know how to use his budget. Phantasm, effectively had double the budget of Halloween (Carpenter spent half just on the Panavision camera). Apparently, Phantasm was originally three hours long–there are signs throughout of cuts with one character nonsensically disappearing and another popping in for a moment almost as a gag–so some of the budget could have been used on those lost minutes.

The acting is hit and miss. Baldwin’s solid and believable, but not exactly good. The script’s a little too absurd. The same goes for Thornbury, whose likability is his greatest asset. It even gets him through this strange little porch-sitting guitar playing scene. Reggie Bannister plays their sidekick in the film’s most humorous role. It kind of works, it mostly doesn’t. Part of the budgetary slash editing problems is Bannister frequently just appears out of nowhere. Most of the supporting cast is mediocre, with Terrie Kalbus giving the film’s worst performance. Scrimm’s a fun villain–and figuring out why he had to be tall actually made me feel pretty smart.

Phantasm succeeds in spite of itself, because it is so impossible to take seriously, much less to be scared by it. But in not being disturbing, it offers a rather pleasant viewing experience, warts, wind machines, reused footage and all.



Written, produced, edited, photographed and directed by Don Coscarelli; music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave; production designer, Kate Coscarelli; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring A. Michael Baldwin (Mike Pearson), Bill Thornbury (Jody Pearson), Reggie Bannister (Reggie), Kathy Lester (Lady in Lavender), Terrie Kalbus (Fortuneteller’s Granddaughter), Lynn Eastman (Sally), David Arntzen (Toby), Bill Cone (Tommy), Laura Mann (Double Lavender), Mary Ellen Shaw (Fortuneteller) and Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man).


One response to “Phantasm (1979, Don Coscarelli)”

  1. The sequels definitely turn the raw materials at hand into the post-apocalyptic comic book serial they beg for…

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