PHANTASM: A NIGHTMARE IN RETROSPECT
by: RICHARD DEAN
The summer of 1979 was a booming time for the horror film genre. Horror dominated the film market the same way science-fiction and action films have dominated the summertime film market over the last several years.
1979 was the year of the monster movie, as evidenced by such high-profile releases as the mutant bear non-opus PROPHECY, the second entry in George Romero’s DEAD trilogy, DAWN OF THE DEAD and the first of four ALIEN films.
There was, however, another entry in the 1979 onslaught of cinematic horror, albeit a smaller entry compared to many of the other big-studio, big-budget behemoths coming down the pike at the time. Small as it was, it ended up making a big boom at the box office, earned a strong following of devotees and, ultimately, became a film franchise in itself.
This imaginative “little” film was entitled PHANTASM.
Though it boasted no big-time budget, no big-name stars and no big-name director, PHANTASM was easily one of the most talked about genre films of that year. And despite generally poor reviews (although, on occasion, a perceptive critic would step off the nay-sayers bandwagon and actually praise the creativity behind the film), PHANTASM was a success, both financially and artistically.
Now, 18 years after the original PHANTASM was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, the film (and its sequels) continues to generate a rabid cult following.
As I had mentioned before, PHANTASM was only one of a slew of horror offerings the year it was released, but, unlike its competitors, PHANTASM displayed an askew sense of morbid imagination, wit and ferocious intensity never before seen in films. In a summer filled with familiar man-eating aliens, rampaging zombies and mutant animals, PHANTASM reigned supreme in originality.
On the surface, PHANTASM is a deceptively simple film; the story of two brothers, Mike (Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), and their ice cream vending friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) who are cast into the fray of a battle with the undead. Their primary nemesis is a malevolent, hulking local undertaker, known only as the Tall Man (played wonderfully by Angus Scrimm). The Tall Man serves as ringmaster in a nightmarish circus of death featuring reanimated corpse-dwarves (eerily reminiscent of STAR WARS’ “Jawas”), severed limbs which take on lives of their own and, most notably, lethal flying “silver spheres”.
Unquestionably, the “silver sphere” is the crowning technical achievement of the PHANTASM series. An ingeniusly conceived weapon of murder, these flying “sentinels” feature barbed metal prongs which connect, with no uncertainty, to the forehead of the sphere’s intended victim. As an added treat, the sphere then releases a spinning drill bit which burrows deep into the victim’s skull, uncorking a geyser of blood and gore which gleefully ejects from the back of the ball.
The “silver sphere” rapidly became the icon that horror film fans most readily remembered about PHANTASM. Even those who saw the original film all those years ago, but have since brushed their recollections aside, are instantly catapulted on a trip down memory lane at the mere mention of “The Balls”.
PHANTASM was not a film that relied on special effects gimmicks alone, however. Writer/Director/Cinematographer Don Coscarelli had created a crafty little film which, in its weakest moments, was no worse than functional, and at its best moments, brilliant.
Like no other film before it, PHANTASM conveyed the true feel of a nightmare to the viewer. This sense of ambiguity, the constant shifting between dream and reality, confounded many critics of the film and enthralled many of its proponents.
PHANTASM was a true original of its time, and still is today. Additionally, in some respects, PHANTASM is more frightening today than it was 18 years ago. Just check out those wicked ’70s fashions and hairstyles! Yecch….
A full nine years went by before the inevitable sequel to PHANTASM crept forth from the crypts. PHANTASM II reunited many members of the cast and crew from the original film, the notable exceptions being the replacement of Michael Baldwin by the very capable James Le Gros in the role of “Mike”, and the absence of Bill Thornbury’s “Jody”.
Plotwise, PHANTASM II cleverly picks up at the exact moment the original film left off at, with Reggie rescuing Mike from a particularly mean-spirited group of dwarves.
After spending a few years in a mental institution, Mike bullshits his way back out into society and into the custody of Reggie. Following a nasty natural gas explosion (courtesy of the Tall Man) which takes the lives of Reggie’s family, the two men hit the road in their black ’71 Hemicuda, bent on revenge against the lanky undertaker and his minions.
Forsaking the dream-like qualities of the first film, PHANTASM II opts for an “in your face” style of action filmmaking. Reggie and Mike, armed to the teeth with flamethrowers, chainsaws, four-barreled shotguns and various other toys, take on distinctively MAD MAX-like personas in their quest for vengeance.
Along the way, we meet other interesting characters such as a priest (Kenneth Tigar) tormented by his role in the Tall Man’s schemes, a goofy female hitchhiker named Alchemy (played by Samantha Phillips, who just loves Reggie’s balding head) and the lovely Elizabeth (Paula Irvine), Mike’s psychic young girlfriend. These are all believable, worthwhile characters that help drive the plot of PHANTASM II in the right direction.
Finding financial backing for PHANTASM II from Universal Pictures, director Coscarelli was able to put a far more polished product on the screen than he was the first time around. PHANTASM II looks great, sounds great and just plain is great from beginning to end. In many ways, it must be considered the finest entry in the series, not just because of its technical merits (with the improved special effects and makeup), but also because of the newfound maturity shown by Coscarelli as a filmmaker. It is clearly evident that in the nine years between the original and the sequel, Coscarelli had truly learned his craft; gaining additional experience from his work on the solid fantasy film BEASTMASTER, and music video work for the heavy- metal artist Ronnie James Dio.
PHANTASM II is a dark, straightforward and beautifully crafted masterpiece of modern horror.
Easily, the most maligned entry in the PHANTASM series is PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD. Released in 1993 directly to video, this film seems to be almost universally despised by fans of the first two films, despite a rave review from Fangoria magazine upon its release.
The story here is much the same as the first two films; Mike and Reggie battle a myriad of dwarves and ghouls while following the trail of the Tall Man. This time around, however, our heroes have help in the form of Rocky (Gloria Lynn Henry), a female ex-Naval officer, and Tim (Kevin Connors), a gun-toting tot not shy about blowing away bad guys, or tossing a lethal, razor blade-lined Frisbee.
The greatest mistake Coscarelli makes in PHANTASM III is taking the film precariously close to the edge of comedy. Witness the laughing group of three zombie bandits marauding our heroes for the duration of the film. Even before joining the ranks of the undead (courtesy of Tim’s aforementioned toys), these hoodlums are so hilariously stereotypical that they would hardly seem a threat to a little kid, let alone a jaded movie audience craving bloodshed.
Having a little kid in the role of a vigilante also does not strengthen the film’s credibility, although, granted, Kevin Connors does a better than decent job in his portrayal of Tim. Never is he obnoxious or overly cute. He’s just not convincing as a pint-sized killing machine.
All right, so PHANTASM III is the weakest link in the series, hands down. But does this make it a bad film, or even a bad PHANTASM film?
PHANTASM III, while nowhere near as dark or inventive as its predecessors, still delivers the goods. It has all the polish of PHANTASM II, and, in a nice casting coup, Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury reprise their roles from the first film.
Also present in PHANTASM III are some of the dream-like elements which were so captivating in the first film. More so than in PHANTASM II, the aspect of fantasy has been recaptured.
PHANTASM III is a fantastically entertaining picture best appreciated on its own merits, not holding expectations for it to be identical in tone to the first two films.
The future of the PHANTASM series appears bright. Plans are currently underway for the development of the next chapter of the PHANTASM saga, tentatively entitled PHANTASM 1999.
While details are sketchy at best for the moment, it has been confirmed that the screenplay for the film was written by Roger Avary (PULP FICTION), making this the first PHANTASM film not written by Don Coscarelli. Plot details are being kept a closely guarded secret from both the media and the cast themselves.
Apparently, there was some initial difficulty in getting the financing together for this latest sequel, but that situation has allegedly been resolved.
Reports from unofficial sources indicate that PHANTASM 1999 is ready to go into production for an early to mid-1998 release.