Phantasm is a masterclass in creating a horror icon.
Time to catch up on another classic horror series.
Do one or two great elements of a film make for a great film?
When you consider a movie like A Nightmare on Elm Street, you’re tempted to think so. What would that movie, and indeed that series, have without Robert Englund’s performance as Freddy? Krueger is so unique that he became an icon outside of the film series. When you casually think of the film, the best bits are all about Freddy.
But that ignores the efforts of everyone else involved in the movie. Wes Craven cut his teeth on filthy 70’s exploitation films, and brought elements of those films to a “mainstream” horror movie. Heather Langenkamp’s performance as Nancy is pretty damn good. Not to an iconic level, but good. And the writing is perfect for a solid teen horror flick. While Robert Englund is incredible, the movie worked as a whole to bring him to life.
Then there’s Phantasm.
Part of the reason why I wanted to review a movie every day was to fill in the gaps in my movie watching. The Phantasm series is one which I know about, and have seen its influences on other films. And I know it as a horror icon. But I’ve never seen any of the films.
And after watching the first one, I reckon they bloody lucked into Angus Scrimm.
In 1979’s Phantasm we meet Mike, who is raised by his older brother Jody after the death of their parents. In their small town, there are a lot of mysterious deaths occurring. They suspect the local mortician, known as the Tall Man. It turns out that their suspicions are correct — the Tall Man has been converting corpses into dwarf zombies to work as slaves on an alien planet.
It’s a bonkers idea, which I respect. 1978 brought us Halloween and 1980 saw the release of Friday the 13th. So right in the middle of the slasher craze came a film which wasn’t afraid to get freaky.
But it isn’t bonkers out of nowhere. Despite the sci-fi motives of the antagonist, Phantasm is grounded in realistic themes. Many of the set-pieces take place in a cemetery/mortuary. Which brings to life (so to speak) the themes of loss and death. The processes that a dead person goes through in modern, western society are very weird. Autopsies, embalming, prepping for open caskets, choosing coffins. They’re all uncomfortable things to think about. So the idea that a mortuary is doing even weirder things to your loved ones is an uncomfortable thought.
It’s unfortunate that the movie doesn’t capitalise on those themes. The acting is sub-par, so even though the movie is going for themes of grief, it doesn’t come through in the characters. And while the movie has a dreamlike quality which is neat, I’m not sure if that isn’t because it lacks a solid plot.
Visually it’s great! But in terms of linking scene-to-scene it’s messy and pulpy in that low-budget 70’s kind of way. I’m sure that cult fans will be upset at that assessment, but that’s me being honest as a new watcher of the movie.
The real saving grace is, of course, the Tall Man. Played by Angus Scrimm. If this character were played by any other person, I genuinely think that Phantasm would have vanished into the ether along with a hundred other low budget 70’s horror films.
But by god, is he a great character. Scrimm plays the Tall Man with an intelligent malevolence. By wearing a mortician’s black suit and tie, every movement is accentuated. He’s dressed proper, so something as simple as an eyebrow raise has impact.
It’s one of those kismet cinematic moments where everything came together. Don Coscarelli’s insane vision. Angus Scrimm’s incredible performance. And the movie doubling down on the Tall Man, giving him room to breathe and make an impact on the audience. All landing at the perfect moment in horror movie history to create a character that is as influential as any other.
Like Freddy, the Tall Man seems to live outside of the film he’s in. You can see a direct line to characters like the Gentlemen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and of course the creepypasta character of the Slender Man.
I could watch the Tall Man all week. Which is, of course, what I’m about to do. A little let down by Phantasm the movie, I’m nevertheless looking forward to aaaaaall of the Phantasm movies. And Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man is in all of them! Let’s do it. *Eyebrow raise*.