Super '70s Sunday - The Film with Balls

PHANTASM (1979)

Don Coscarelli's weird and wonderful funeral home escapade finally got a remastered release (from Bad Robot and J.J. Abrams of all people) so it's time to venture into the Tall Man's domain and see how things hold up nearly four decades years later. Is it a strange nonsensical horror story, or a laughably silly film about beings from another world? Is it just a tribute to the Italian traditions of shock cinema? Perhaps all of the above. It's certainly a movie that provokes a few both laughs and a few creepy feelings along the way, mainly because of the structure and the random nature of the events that transpire. These are certainly bizarre in nature even without considering the editing and the music choices. But let's take a closer look and see how this all comes together.


This is definitely one of those horror flicks that will often make you stop and say... wait, what? There's a lot of wacky things going on from one scene to the next, even before it becomes apparent that it's been cut together in a pretty unusual way. The villain's weird behaviour when he passes by a frozen goods stand for example. Or his strange and elusive minions. Or that flying cerebral bore he keeps around. Just what kind of funeral home is this with so many marble surfaces, and what are all these statues?

There are lots of little moments (and a few major one) that build up to create a kind of nightmarish feeling. It can sometimes be frustrating but on the whole it's just otherworldly and entertaining. In one particularly peculiar moment, young hero Mike visits a medium or a fortune teller of some kind, and they re-enact that whole fear-is-the-mind-killer bit from Frank Herbert's Dune before it ever made it to the screen courtesy if David Lynch. Who are these people and why is this scene included? It's a question that crops up frequently here, mostly in the first act but plenty of times later on too.

Probably because at one stage this film was a lot longer and lot more complex. Eventually the makers decided to edit it all down to make it more ... digestible? Good work guys! Almost all the pieces are incongruous as the story progresses, characters wander around from one scene to the next and rational behaviour and internal logic often goes out the window. It's incredibly disjointed. But it's kind of fascinating at the same time.


Purely as a horror movie it's pretty weird but ultimately that's why it's so endearing and often amusing to watch. Angus Scrimm makes for a fun antagonist, pulling annoyed faces and yelling at the characters who investigate his madcap body snatching plans. It's easy to see why they made so many sequels with him, and why the shorter revised cut introduced him earlier than planned. The other characters are all pretty bland, and it's hard to take them seriously with so many '70s hairdos and the generally relaxed demeanour every seems to have.

But it holds a certain kind of atmosphere, with plenty of striking visuals and an eerie theme tune. It often has the feeling of a weird, mind boggling Lucio Fulci movie where mellow synthesiser music plays and random supernatural mayhem occurs. Someone had ideas they wanted to put up the screen, and well sure here they all are. Whether it makes any sense or not. There's a depressed muscle car driving dude, his peeping tom kid brother, and their pal the guitar playing ice cream man. Eventually they team up to solve a mystery. Or do they? What exactly is happening? Did someone just say that a guy who died from serious stab wounds to the stomach wounds killed himself?

All these unsolved mysteries appear in what is eventually a story about stolen corpses and nightmare visions of other planets. At least I think that's what is going on, a few offhand comments are all the exposition that is provided. A lot of the time it's not obvious why (or sometimes when) certain things are happening even towards the finale when it tries to throw in a few explanations and wrap things up. Giant insects attack, heads are drilled, and horny couples try to get laid in the same place their friend was just murdered recently.

If a film was ever equally mystifying and watchable at the same time, this was it. The closing twists are all pretty absurd, often posing more questions than answers. But in the end it's the kind of thing that's made for repeat visits, even if they can be guilty pleasure viewings or those times you just want to have a few drinks and a few laughs. There are a slew of sequels including a second instalment that diverges into fun Evil Dead II style action territory and a bunch of others that are pretty weak. Interestingly they make this plot even more confusing as they go on instead of developing it. But the original stands alone as a weirdly unique and sinister experience.

4/5