Creature Feature 2:
The Phantasm Series of Don Coscarelli
One of the defining horror films of the late 1970s
Don Coscarelli's Phantasm, a low-budget fright fest that introduced
dream-like, surreal nightmare scenarios to American mainstream cinema, the
likes of which back then had only been known from Italian horror meister
Dario Argento, who claims that most of his films were actually translations
of nightmares he had.
Master of the macabre:
|The plot of Phantasm revolves around
teenage boy Mike, his older brother Jody and their friend Reggie, a balding ice cream vendor.
One day one of their friends dies under mysterious circumstances. After
the funeral Mike watches a tall man clad in a black suit taking the coffin, loading it into his hearse and driving
off with it. Soon the brothers discover that this Tall Man steals dead bodies, transforms them into dwarf-like creatures and
hides them in his mortuary, where they are sent to a remote planet, accessible by a dimensional gate consisting of two vibrating metal poles. Among the menaces employed by the
Tall Man are monster bugs, the aforementioned dwarves and flying silver spheres that drill holes into heads and drain their victims' blood. The three friends are finally able to destroy the Tall Man (he plunges into a chasm and is buried under huge boulders), but not without suffering casualties, when Reggie is brutally stabbed to death
by the Tall Man disguised as a sexy girl. However, soon later it turns out that Reggie is still alive. Trying to talk Mike out of his phantasies about the Tall
Man, Reggie reveals to Mike that Jody was killed in a car wreck and everything
was just a nightmare. The audience is left puzzled: Was it all really just a dream, a dream within a dream or a ghost story told by Reggie in front of the cosy fireplace? It doesn't help either that upstairs in Mike's room, the Tall Man returns clutching the helpless boy and dragging him through a mirror before the end credits start to roll.
Brothers in peril: Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury)
The Iceman cometh: Reggie (Reggie Bannister)
Despite the convoluted narrative, Phantasm's mixture of classic
horror elements and science fiction appealed to horror fans and made it an
instant cult hit. It spawned three
sequels, which were all written, directed and edited by Don Coscarelli.
Furthermore, all four parts feature (mostly) the same recurring actors, most
of whom are practically unknown outside of Coscarelli's Phantasm films. It also
seemed that Coscarelli had made hours and hours of footage, which were cut
from the final picture, resulting in numerous unanswered questions.
Primal fears: No wonder Mike looks frightened when he faces the sinister Tall Man (Angus Scrimm)
Reggie meets new faces Liz (Paula Irvine)
and Mike (James LeGros)....
...and the same old problems: the Tall Man wants a word with Liz
|Phantasm II continues right where part
one ended: Reggie is able to snatch Mike from the Tall Man and his dwarf army just before the house bursts into flames.
Ten years later, Mike is released from a mental institution, and nobody believes his story about the Tall Man. Mike again teams up with Reggie, who tells him that his brother Joey was not taken by the Tall Man, but killed in a car crash. After discovering that all graves in their hometown's cemetery are empty, they set out to hunt down the Tall Man. Their trip takes Reggie and Mike to the town of Perigord, where strange things are happening: dead bodies come to life again, most people have left in fear and even the town's minister has lost his faith. In Perigord, Reggie and Mike meet Liz, whose grandmother and grandfather have
also been taken by the Tall Man and turned into dwarves. Actually, much of the film is narrated by
Liz, who for some unknown reason has had telepathic contact with Mike for several years.
At the mortuary they battle the Tall Man's dwarf army, a host of aides and even deadlier versions of the dreaded silver spheres. At last they confront the Tall Man and manage to kill him off by dissolving him in acid.
Of course the Tall Man cannot be so easily dispatched, and just when Reggie, Mike and Liz set off in a black hearse, he returns taking control of the car.
Made with financial backing from Universal Studios, Phantasm II is a much
more mainstream experience than its prequel. Due to pressure from the
studio, Coscarelli not only had to recast the role of Mike with James LeGros
instead of Mike Baldwin, but also had to eliminate all dream elements from
the final cut, which resulted in a less surreal, more straight-forward
horror actioner. However, the ending once again creates more confusion and
does not help to clear up any of the unanswered questions.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, made 6 years later on a considerably lower budget without the
participation of a major studio, continues exactly where the prequel ended:
The car crashes, Liz is killed in the accident and Reggie manages to save an
unconscious Mike from the Tall Man and his dwarf minions.
Soon later, Mike is abducted from a hospital by the Tall Man and it is
revealed that there is a mysterious connection between them when the Tall
Man implants one of his deadly spheres in Mike's head. The film also brings
back Mike's brother Jody, whose spirit is trapped in a silver sphere
occasionally aiding Reggie to find the Tall Man. On his continuing road trip
passing several towns devastated by the Tall Man, Reggie picks up Tim, a
teenager trained in the use of deadly weapons, and Rocky, a female ex
army soldier, whose friend is killed by one of the deadly silver spheres.
They continue to battle zombies brought back to life by the Tall Man and
more silver spheres until Reggie finally confronts the Tall Man at his
mortuary. The film ends with Mike, half transformed into one of the Tall
Man's followers, running off into the desert and Reggie captured and
immobilized by hundreds of the Tall Man's spheres.
Even more than its prequel, Phantasm III is a straightforward action/horror/road
movie, which also incorporates outbursts of extreme gore and, rather atypical for the
series, comedy elements. At that point writer/director Coscarelli had
completely abandoned the surreal elements which dominate the first Phantasm
and traded dreams and (often implausible) plot twists for violence and
Unusual enforcements for Reggie:
Tim (Kevin Connors) and Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry)
Older but wiser: A. Michael Baldwin is back as Mike
Brothers re-united: Jody and Mike once again battle the Tall Man
Before becoming the personified evil: Angus Scrimm as Morningside
|As usual in the series, Phantasm IV: Oblivion continues immediately after part
three: Mike drives off to the desert of Death Valley, while Reggie is mysteriously set
free by the Tall Man. He once again embarks on a road trip passing deserted town after town,
continuously chased by zombie cops and the Tall Man's lethal silver spheres.
Meanwhile Mike arrives in the desert, where the Tall Man already awaits him.
Desperate and alone, Mike writes his last will and hangs himself from a tree.
Yet, his suicide attempt fails because the Tall Man won't let him die,
since he has already plans for him. But Mike refuses to join the Tall Man and
finds out he now has the ability to move objects by the power of his will
and to conjure up dimension gates. Passing through one of them,
Mike finds himself in a past time, where he meets a mortician named Jebediah
Morningside, who looks exactly like the Tall Man and has built a mysterious
dimension fork, a machine which might one day enable him to travel through
time and space.
Mike returns to the desert and prepares a plan to finally destroy the
Tall Man: Accompanied by his brother Jodie, he once again travels through a
dimension gate in order to kill Jebediah Morningside before he can become the Tall
Man. However, the plan fails because it seems that Mike was only watching
Morningside's transformation into his terrible nemesis from another dimension. Jodie, who
turns out to be one of the Tall Man's evil minions, is then killed by Mike.
Meanwhile Reggie has arrived killing off several of the Tall Man's dwarf
creatures. Mike also returns through the gate and manages to set a trap for
the Tall Man, who finally perishes in a fiery explosion. Moments
later, the Tall Man mysteriously returns from the dimension gate
overpowering Mike and Reggie and rips the implanted silver sphere out of
Mike's head. Leaving him to die in the desert, the Tall Man vanishes through
the gate. Promising Mike to save him, Reggie follows the Tall Man through
the gate and disappears.
|Originally written together with Roger Avary and entitled Phantasm 1999,
creator Coscarelli had planned the fourth movie as a high-budget conclusion
to the series. Unable to raise the enormous budget, he dropped all plans and
the original script and made Phantasm IV:Oblivion independently on a miniscule budget.
Seamlessly integrating unused scenes from the first film, Coscarelli was
able to add another haunting chapter to the series, which marked a return to
the first films dark atmosphere without the silliness of Phantasm III.
Although Phantasm IV explained a lot, in particular the Tall Man's origin,
it once again left the fans hanging in mid air with several unanswered
questions hoping that one day Coscarelli would give them a proper conclusion.
Unfortunately, eight years later, we are still waiting.
One of several gory moments in Phantasm, where a hapless
drilled and drained by the lethal silver spheres
A mouthful of silver: Phantasm II drastically increased the gore
The priest (Kenneth Tigar) in Phantasm II is surely having a ball
|The Phantasm series has often met harsh criticism due to its lack of logic and
plausible narrative. But this is exactly, what distinguishes Phantasm from
other horror franchises: The Phantasm films have managed to create a
mythology of their own, where reality and dream are often not clearly
separated. Characters die, come back to life, just to be dead a couple of
scenes later. More a series of stylized set pieces than a logical narrative,
Phantasm's nightmarish quality, which owes more than a bit to Fred Myrow's
simple, yet effective score, is on par with some of the best films by Dario
Argento, who always favoured style over content. Much is left to the viewer
to figure out after the end credits have rolled. Each part reveals more
clues about the Tall Man's origin, but even after four instalments there are
enough mysteries left unexplained. In this respect the Phantasm films can be
compared to the later works of David Lynch, who utilises similar techniques
in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. Of course the Phantasm series lacks
the arthouse flair of Lynch's efforts and his sophisticated intellectual
approach. After all the Phantasm films are low-budget horror films and often
incorporate genre elements typical for more commercial products, which is
why they appeal to horror fans and have not managed to cross over to the
This approach has made Phantasm a unique series, but also locked creator
Coscarelli out of the Hollywood machinery. As a consequence, the budgets for
each Phantasm film were ridiculously low; even Phantasm II, financed by
Universal Studios with the intention of turning it into a lucrative
franchise, was made for only $ 3,000,000. Thanks to Coscarelli's working
methods and skills the films still manage to entertain and only rarely give
away their low-cost origins.
Next Creature Feature coming
soon: the movies of John Carpenter !
© 2006 Andreas Rohrmoser