Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm (1979)

“I can’t figure this thing out. But I do know one thing: something weird is going on up there.”

When a man (Bill Cone) is murdered by a woman (Kathy Lester) he’s just had sex with in a graveyard, his friends Jody (Bill Thornbury), Reggie (Reggie Bannister), and Jody’s younger brother Mike (Michael Pearson) begin an investigation in a nearby mausoleum, where a creepy mortician (Angus Scrimm) is wandering the hallways with nefarious plans.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Horror Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Orphans

This cult favorite by 25-year-old writer-director Don Coscarelli spawned several sequels and has legions of dedicated fans who consider Scrimm’s “The Tall Man” to be one of the great horror villains of all time:

However, I personally find Phantasm to be a mess of a movie — to the extent that I started talking back to it at a certain point, simply out of incredulity at the choices being made:

“That guy just fired a pistol near his own head to kill off the mutant creature that’s pounced on top of him — good thing he was okay with only having a few inches to spare in his aim!”

“Why are we suddenly back in the mausoleum again?”

“Where do all these guns keep coming from?!”

Coscarelli clearly seems to be aiming for a form of giallo in his use of atmospheric cinematography and Goblin-esque music (as well as a windshield shattering at one point), but can’t seem to make up his mind which horror film tropes he wants to settle on, ultimately simply throwing them all in — including killer hooded dwarves:

… a blind seer:

… a disembodied finger:

… a (seemingly) self-driving car:

… the discovery of meaningful old sepia-toned photos in a cluttered antique shop:

… a chase scene through the dark woods:

… and death-after-sex:

In addition, there’s a brief time/space warp sequence that presumably gives Pearson all sorts of insights into what the Tall Man is ultimately aiming for:

… as well as a truly random musical interlude:

… and a special effects sequence — a lethal silver ball hurtling straight at a bad-guy — which nearly all viewers seems to agree is one of the film’s highlights (too bad there’s no rhyme or reason to its nifty if terrifying existence).

Finding out that Phantasm originally ran over three hours helps to explain the many narrative fragments that simply don’t cohere. I understand that this film was originally conceived through dreams by Coscarelli, and should be viewed as a nightmare-like tale. But for those who prefer narrative cohesion, you’ll want to stay away.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography and sets

Must See?
Yes, once — but only for its strong cult status. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Cult Movie


3 thoughts on “Phantasm (1979)

  1. Not must-see – though its obvious cult appeal will maintain it as of interest to cult horror fans.

    I had seen this once before and didn’t much like it then. Having just watched ‘Phantasm: Remastered’, my opinion hasn’t changed or improved – but this is the kind of horror flick that cult film fans tend to love, warts and all. Personally I find it clunky and often slow and inert, even though I’ll admit that occasionally it’s effective. (Its score is not only mindlessly repetitive but also annoying.)

    Though I don’t generally think it’s a good idea to read reviews of a film before seeing it, in this case it may be helpful to read its Wikipedia entry first – which goes into some detail re: the film’s ‘value’ thematically as a ‘statement’ on how we feel / have anxiety about death. Such an understanding going in can possibly make the film more palatable. … But I still don’t care much for it.

  2. My original vote was most definitely a “No” on this, which I only changed after hearing so much about why (and how many) fans adore it.

    It was interesting to read this in an interview with Coscarelli:

    Coscarelli says there’s one other element to “Phantasm’s” staying power that he’s discovered in recent years while meeting men in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

    “They always tell me ‘You know, when I saw that movie, I just never forgot it because there was that kid and he was shooting a shotgun, he was driving his brother’s car, he was fighting the undead.’ In a weird way, and not by any design, I created this teen male empowerment movie.'”

  3. ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2 out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    Freaky, effective, surreal dream logic horror. There’s nothing else quite like it. A big cult item but not really a prime mover in the horror genre in terms of having loads of influence. Highly recommended but not a must see for FFs.

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