Monday, October 4, 2010

Phantasm: A Classic Review

This classic review was written by Grump from The Grumpy Old Man

Well, it's my favorite time of year: Halloween. That means I get to spend the month watching all of the horror movies that TV stations seem to avoid like the plague for the other eleven months of the year. So, what better way to start off the month than to talk about my favorite horror movie, Phantasm. I'd mention that it was directed by Don Coscarelli and starred Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, and Reggie Bannister but if you've never seen Phantasm those names probably mean absolutely nothing to you. In fact, if you've heard of Phantasm at all, it's probably because of...

...the killer balls that fly through the air and drill into people's heads. I'm guessing this is probably the point where I lose most of you because the concept either seems disgusting, lame, or a combination of both. However, if you dig under that layer of B-Movie cheese, Phantasm really is an effective horror movie.

I think the big mistake that people who don't like horror movies make is to compare them with other genres in terms of what makes for a good movie. If you're not willing to completely suspend disbelief for two hours, then you'll be disappointed. Take Phantasm's basic premise: an evil being from another dimension is robbing graves to turn the dead into zombie dwarfs to be enslaved on his home world. Obviously, there is no way to approach that without it sounding pretty dumb. But here's the thing: conventionally well-written scripts and plot structure does not make a good horror movie. So why watch at all? Well, let's take a look at what makes Phantasm a worthy horror film.

Of course, one of the most important elements of any good horror movie is a memorable villain, and Phantasm boasts one of the scariest senior citizens in the history of film, The Tall Man. The Tall Man is the undertaker at the Morningside Funeral Home, which gives him ample opportunity for the aforementioned grave robbing. What makes The Tall Man such a great villain is his presence. Actor Angus Scrimm takes a very minimalist approach, having literally only about a dozen words worth of lines in the whole movie. But he really doesn't need to say anything. Take one look at that twisted scowl and you know that he's got some bad intentions. He freaks you out, gets your adrenaline pumping, and his is a face that stays with you long after the movie ends. That, my friends, is one of the things you look for in a good horror film.

Now, there are two schools of thought when it comes to the protagonists of a horror movie. In slasher films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, it's OK if the characters are likable but really their only purpose is to serve as cannon fodder for the anti-heroes like Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. Their characterizations rarely get beyond that of "jock" or "slut" because we know they won't be around long enough for anyone to really give a shit about them anyway. In a movie like Phantasm, however, we're not really expected to root for the villain, so you have to make the good guys important enough to the audience for them to actually care if they live or die. Considering there are no name actors in the movie, I think they really do a good job at making the audience care. Bill Thornbury and Michael Baldwin play brothers Jody and Mike, respectively, and I had no trouble buying them as a family with their own history that carries into the movie. As they get taken through the ringer while facing off with the Tall Man I really found myself hoping they would both make it through the movie. Then there's Reggie Bannister playing Reggie, the local "hot as love" ice cream man. I know that he sounds like a schmuck, but I guarantee he makes it work, and again by making you like him there is more suspense when he's put in harm's way.

And if you're going to have anyone harmed in a horror movie, you better do it well. Special effects can make or break any horror movie, and I'm not going to bother trying to explain it. I'm just going to show you the following clip from the movie Shark Attack 3.

Granted, I don't think special effects were the only thing holding back Shark Attack 3 from being a masterpiece, but if we're being asked to put what we know about reality on the shelf for a little while, there should be at least a little effort to fool us. In Phantasm's case, director Don Coscarelli does very nice work with minimal budget. He uses clever editing and camera angles to toy with the viewer's sense of reality, and there are some very good practical effects for some gnarly gore scenes. Granted, he misses the mark a few times, like with a killer bug that appears to be controlled by fishing line, or zombie dwarfs that come of as kind of silly, but for the most part he does what he needs to do to keep the audience involved rather than pointing out sub par effects.

A last thing that gives Phantasm a final push into being a quality horror film is the soundtrack. If the soundtrack sucks, especially in a horror movie, then it can bring the whole movie down with it. But if it's done right, a soundtrack can set the tone for the entire movie. It doesn't need to be an elaborate symphony, either. John Carpenter did his own music when he made Halloween, but even people who don't watch horror movies recognize that frantic piano melody that seems to follow Michael Myers around wherever he goes. And as much as I love the soundtrack to Halloween, I actually like Phantasm's even more. It's got a very spooky vibe, but at the same time there is a haunting soothing sensation that comes from it. It's just hard to forget, which in turn makes the movie hard to forget.

Now, I'm really not expecting to change anyone's mind when it comes to horror movies. In most cases either people like them or they don't. But hopefully people who look down their noses at horror movies will realize that us horror fans aren't demented idiots just because we like movies that critics crap all over on a regular basis. Horror movies do have something to add to the world of cinema, even if it is just as an entertaining way to kill some time. Phantasm in particular is really great for what it is: a creepy movie made by a group of people with almost no budget who wanted to give people some good scares. Take a gander at the trailer below, and if you ever come across the movie give it a chance. It may surprise you.


quizshowbob said...

OMG...I remember going to the movies when I was in high school and seeing "Phantasm" with my friends. That guy totally creeped me out. He kind of reminds me of that guy in "One Dark Night". Now that's a scary guy.

KeLLy aNN said...

This is one of the first movies I saw when my family first got HBO in the mid/late 70s. The Hubs and I both love this movie. I don't consider it a true horror movie unles it is a B~movie. To many slick special effects and its just a computer video..
REGGIE! he was great. You really did find your self rooting for all of them.
I have never seen the follow up Phantasm's; weren't there two of them?
Phantasm has always been my favorite horror movie.