Phantasm: A Surreal Midnight Movie Classic

A ‘phantasm’ refers to something illusory, an apparition, or a figment of the imagination. What’s not illusory is the surprising legacy of Don Coscarelli’s low-budget masterpiece, Phantasm. Earlier this week, the incomparable surreal horror celebrated its 40th anniversary. In the years since its release, Phantasm has spawned four sequels across four decades. Angus Scrimm’s ‘The Tall Man’ is a minor horror icon. In addition, the Bravo channel has ranked Phantasm at #25 of their Top 100 Scariest Movie Moments list. In this edition of The Vault, I take a look at one of horror’s most enduring classics.

Phantasm Perfects Captures the Feel of a Nightmare

In regards to narrative structure, Phantasm may not appeal to fans of conventional story-telling. Perhaps it’s an understatement to say that Don Coscarelli’s story of a grave-robbing undertaker and his dwarf minions doesn’t adhere too closely to any particular plot convention. In fact, much of what happens in Phantasm doesn’t make much sense. From ‘The Lady in Lavendar’ in the movie’s opening minutes to it ambiguous ending, there are more than a few plot holes lurking. Many of these problems are more evident with the sequels where the series is force to expand on its atmosphere and expand the mythology.

And Coscarelli has perfectly replicated the look and feel of a waking nightmare.

But logical coherence in story-telling isn’t the point with Phantasm. Coscarelli’s horror masterpiece is surreal horror. Like Carnival of Souls or Suspiria, atmosphere and mood take precedent over coherent plotting or believable character arcs. And Coscarelli has perfectly replicated the look and feel of a waking nightmare. Notwithstanding any plot holes, Phantasm has the perfect midnight movie feel. Its unnerving, relentless, and tense with unbridled creativity. Even if not all the ideas will hold together after you’ve finished watching it. Do flying orbs with drills make sense? No, but it’s damn cool and creepy.

Phantasm Boasts One of Horror’s Best Jump Scares

As mentioned above, Bravo has ranked Phantasm at #25 on its list of Top 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Horror fans can turn their noses up to jump scares all they want. But when a filmmaker executes it right, a good jump scare can elevate an otherwise average horror movie. Or make a good horror movie great. Think Dallas in the ventilation shafts in Alien. How about Jason’s first appearance in Friday the 13th? Maybe the ‘clapping game’ in The Conjuring.

Rounding out Coscarelli’s classic, however, is one of horror’s best jump scares.

Phantasm is a horror movie literally crawling with creepy moments. Though he never quite achieved the same level of notoriety as some of his horror counterparts, Angus Scrimm’s ‘The Tall Man’ is a haunting horror antagonist. In addition, there’s plenty of inventive DIY gore that puts cinema’s recent obsession with CGI blood to shame. Rounding out Coscarelli’s classic, however, is one of horror’s best jump scares. Horror movies of the 70’s and ‘80s loved their hazy dream conclusions. Was it real or not? Watch enough movies from the era and you’ll see your fair share of these endings. Today, it’s an overused trope. But when Coscarelli did it, the idea still felt fresh. And Coscarelli executed it perfectly. It’s not just the initial shock of the Tall Man popping out from behind the bed. No, the scene works so well because it lingers with you longer after it’s over.

Haunted Funeral Homes, Flying Orbs, and Ghoulish Undertakers

Funeral homes should be pure ‘nightmare fuel’ for horror movies. To some extent, the genre has put the setting to good use. Look no further than then more recent The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Nonetheless, horror has a shortage of ghoulish undertakers and haunted mausoleums. Phantasm makes maximum use of its gothic setting, while expaning well beyond classic horror. Undoubtedly, Phantasm succeeds in large part due to Coscarellis ‘gonzo’ story that mixes old and new horror with science fiction elements. Diehard series fans may disagree, but Coscarelli’s mythology doesn’t hold up well across its sequels. In a single movie, however, Phantasm’s oddball world fits perfectly with the low-budget aesthetics and midnight movie atmosphere. There’s a ‘lightning in a bottle’ feel to the movie that makes it utterly watchable.

Phantasm Is The Definitive Midnight Movie

As a horror franchise, the Phantasm series hasn’t enjoyed the recognition or success of the horror heavyweights like Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street. It probably clocks in just above the Hellraiser movies. But Don Coscarelli’s 1979 Phantasm has defied financial restraints and time to remain both relevant and terrifying. When older horror fans refer to ‘midnight movies’, they’re talking about movies like Phantasm.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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