10/4/09

Phantasm (1979): Old School Baller

There are very few horror films whose roots come directly from kid friendly fare, but the kernel that would become a horror classic came to director Don Coscarelli just that way. While he was watching a screening of his second film, kiddie flick Kenny & Company, he marveled at how the audience reacted to a jump scare. In Coscarelli’s own words 'Kenny was a gentle comedy, however, during a preview screening, there was a sequence in a haunted house where a man dressed in a monster costume jumped out and the entire audience screamed. For me, this was an exciting, new response from an audience and I determined that my next film would be loaded with shocks” Coscarelli retired to a cabin in the woods, and there inspired by a dream he had as a teenager where a silver ball with a needle on it relentlessly persued him, intent on lodging the needle in his head. When he emerged, he brought with him the rough draft of the script for Phantasm.

Coscarelli’s script focused Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), and their friend, ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Jody and Reggie are attending the funeral of a friend who has tragically died, and Mike, who tags along everywhere Jody goes, sees the Tall Man, the mortician (Angus Scrimm), acting strangely and exhibiting an unnatural strength. Mike goes to the mortuary at night to investigate, and narrowly avoids getting caught by the Tall Man and the deadly, spiked silver sphere he controls. Mike finally gets his brother and Reggie to believe him, and they uncover The Tall Man’s plot to reanimate the dead as dwarven slaves in another dimension.

The characters in Phantasm were crafted especially for the actors, all of which Coscarelli had previously worked with, and it shows. All four of the leads are infinitely comfortable in their respective character’s skins, but none of them make their appearance more memorable than Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man. While not as recognizable as Freddy, Jason, or Michael outside of the horror community, The Tall Man has long been a favorite of horror fans. Angus Scrimm, whose real name is Laurence Rory Guy, got his start in films as another memorable tall man playing Abraham Lincoln in a film produced by Encyclopedia Brittanica, but he didn’t make his big screen debut until 1973 when he played in director Curtis Hanson’s debut Sweet Kill.

A few years later he worked with another young director, 18 year old Don Coscarelli, in his directorial debut Jim the World’s Greatest. When Coscarelli was writing the script he always wanted the role to go to Scrimm and has said, “I was very intimidated by him and felt that if given the proper role he could make quite an imposing impression.” The extremely tall actor already had a unique look, but Coscarelli enhanced Scrimm’s height by giving him lifts for his shoes and a suit that was a couple of sizes too small. The actor, who switched to the Scrimm pseudonym for the horror film, now has embraced the role. He even went too far as to say, “I probably shouldn't confess to this, but I groove on being recognized. But it seldom happens, possibly because I rarely go anywhere dressed in a tight-fitting black suit and boots with two-inch lifts in them.” It’s great that Scrimm relishes the role, and it’s also pretty awesome to think about The Tall Man “grooving” on anything.

I don’t want to shortchange the rest of the cast either. A. Michael Baldwin had co-starred in Kenny & Company, and like the other roles, Mike was written specifically for him. Mike is a young man with abandonment issues after the death of his parents, and he follows older brother Jody everywhere he goes. It would be easy for Mike to come off as an annoying younger brother, but Baldwin’s pitch perfect performance allows the audience to see the hurt kid inside. Coscarelli was equally impressed, and he wanted Baldwin back for 1988’s Phantasm II, but the studio objected as Baldwin had not had a film role since Phantasm. The role in the sequel went to James LeGros, but Baldwin would reprise Mike in the third and fourth installments of the series.

The only actor to have appeared in all four of the Phantasm films other than Mr. Scrimm is Reggie Bannister as the creatively named Reggie. Throughout all four of the films Reggie is my favorite character. He’s an unlikely hero in Phantasm with his white ice cream man uniform and balding head enhanced by a pony tail, but he is an endlessly fun actor to watch work. He appears so natural on film and always gives a great performance. Bill Thornbury likewise turns in a good one as older brother Jody. Thornbury, like Baldwin, would get another chance to appear in the franchise starting with Phantasm III.

Now one criticism I have heard about Phantasm is that the effects are cheesy. While I can see the argument about scene where The Tall Man’s severed finger becomes a tiny monster, I still find this scene completely amusing. The fight with the little monster is a great sequence that hit the same horror comic tone that Sam Rami would explore with his Evil Dead films. The other big effects sequence is that of the infamous silver ball. While the balls would become more prevalent in the sequels, the introduction of the death orb is quite the scene. After several failed attempts at making the effect look good, the ball was attached to a fishing line and thrown by Art Director David Brown, a former pitcher in high school. The action was filmed and then printed in reverse giving the eerie smooth movement that the ball exhibits.

The whole look and feel of the film have a dreamlike quality, and the image that always stays with me for days after I see the film is The Tall Man looming over Mike’s bed as he sleeps. Phantasm worked because it departed from a formula, and Coscarelli dared to mix horror, drama, and science fiction to make something new and interesting. While the sequels are hit and miss, the original deserves a place in the horror pantheon with the greats, and it deserves a place in any horror fan’s collection. If you haven’t seen this one in a while, or never, it’s a must see. After all, this film’s got balls. (You really didn’t think I could make it all the way through without that joke did you?)




Bugg Rating

6 comments:

  1. Just rewatched this one last weekend and fell in love with it all over again. Classic stuff. I agree about the Reggie character as well, I even liked him in part 2 (which I watched also), even if I didn't care for the sequel all that much. I have actually never seen 3 and 4. If I didn't like 2, are the rest worth checking out?

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  2. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobOctober 4, 2009 at 5:09 PM

    I still think "Phantasm 2" is the best of the series.

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  3. Yeah, PHANTASM II is my fave of the series as well but the first is great also for the reason you said so eloquently in your post.

    Also, Reggie's my fave character of the series as well. I love that bit in the first film where he noodling away on his guitar. It's a nice little bit that has nothing to do with anything but endears you to his character that much more.

    Great, in-depth write-up!

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  4. Awesome, unique movie. Wish there were more like this!

    - Simon

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  5. I understand why this one is a classic and can recognize where it succeeds, but I have never been a fan of the PHANTASM series. Its just too odd for my taste, but I still reproach it in hopes that I will one day have the same affinity for it as most other Horror fans.

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