In fact, it's been on my To-Watch list for a decade, at least, but it was just never a priority. There was always other stuff more easily available. It took me forever to actually carve out the paltry 89 minutes it took to watch the film, and I'm embarrassed that I hadn't done it before.
Phantasm opens in a cemetery with a sex scene that ends in a stabbing. The victim's funeral is attended by Jody and Reggie, a couple of twenty-something slackers. Jody has the classic desire to Leave Home and Seek His Fortune, but he's been hanging around town since the recent death of his parents for the benefit of his younger brother, Mike. Mike, incidentally, is not invited to the funeral, so he hides in the bushes and watches as, after the ceremony, the mortician, lifts the casket without assistance into the hearse and drives off.
Strange stuff. Mike is spooked and discusses his concerns with Jody. There have been some weird deaths in town, and the mortician--nicknamed the Tall Man--seems to be involved somehow. Mike, Jody, and Reggie start keeping an eye on the Tall Man and eventually discover that he's involved with some very weird goings-on at the funeral home.
It's a hard movie to discuss without spoiling it, but that's the gist of it, and I'm not giving away secrets that aren't apparent from looking at the movie poster.
So what can I discuss without spoiling the plot? Well, for starters, this is a pretty low-budget effort, and director Don Coscarelli did a nice job on $300,000. It's not as good a movie, I think, as Evil Dead which was made a couple of years later on about the same budget. The special effects are no longer impressive, but they're imaginative and interesting. In particular, everybody seems to remember the Tall Man's silver sphere (again, it's right there on the poster) which arcs through the air and butchers people.
When Phantasm came out in 1979, the critics weren't especially kind to it. Roger Ebert, who gave it one and a half stars out of four, praised the special effects, but couldn't find much to love about the story. This is a film, I think that probably requires multiple viewings and an appreciation of the ambiguous. We never really do figure out what's going on. There's a much bigger story going on somewhere out of frame, and we, like the characters in the movie, only get a tiny glimpse of it. The weirdness comes mostly from the barely-explained motivations of the Tall Man. Undoubtedly the backstory is exploded and examined in Coscarelli's three sequels which I haven't seen, but for this one film, less may well be more.
And that's an accident, I guess. Reading up on the film, it sounds like it was shot on a bare-bones script that went through a number of rewrites over the course of production. This is a movie that succeeded in spite of the fact that there was no one at the wheel with a strong, guiding vision. Go figure. This was Coscarelli's first horror film, and thanks to his more recent work (specifically Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End), I'm slowly coming around to the idea that he while he might not be one of The Great Filmmakers, he's certainly a damn good director.
Click here for the trailer.