A review of “Phantasm” (1979)

I don’t enjoy panning films that others revere.  There’s no percentage in it.  I’m not the guy who tries to be edgy or cool by telling you he dislikes something that everyone else loves.

But I do need to tell you that I think that “Phantasm” (1979) is a bad movie.  I’d rate it a 3 out of 10, based on some interesting ingredients, but I suspect that even that is a bit generous.  I finally managed to make it through its entire running time tonight, and it feels amateurish on every level.

It’s poorly scripted, directed and edited, with performances that are nearly all quite bad.  The first exception here is A. Michael Baldwin, who was a decent child actor when this movie was made, and who was quite likable as the story’s adolescent protagonist.  The second exception, I suppose, is “The Tall Man” himself, Angus Scrimm, the deep-voiced and admittedly unsettling big-bad.

There’s really only one other positive thing I can say about the movie — it has a damned good set design for its mausoleum.  (Somewhat confusingly, the film suggests this is located … inside the funeral home itself?  Is that a thing in some places?  I honestly don’t know.)  The set is simultaneously beautiful and frightening, with symmetrical hallways of contrasting white and red — the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Stanley Kubrick film.  I can’t escape the suspicion that it was somehow pilfered from a far better film.

And I do understand the unconscious appeal of “Phantasm’s” story.  We see an adolescent boy who has lost his parents team up with his likable older brother to fight mysterious monsters at their local funeral home.  They enlist the aid of the brother’s guitar-playing, everyman best friend, they use everyday weapons like guns and knives, and they bond over the shared experience.  It’s a tailor-made, understandable power fantasy for any adolescent boy first grasping adult concepts of death and mortality.

But … those things aren’t enough to redeem the film.  In my opinion, it’s bad enough to be a candidate for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment.

Hey — what do I know?  Your mileage may vary.  “Phantasm” has a cult following in the horror community, and spawned no fewer than four sequels.  (The latest, “Phantasm: Ravager,” was released just three years ago.)  You might enjoy it, or you might need to watch it out of curiosity, as I did.

 

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