Phantasm (1979)

28th October 2022

Phantasm is available to buy, rent or stream.

Some films remain an enigma no matter how many times you watch them. These puzzle box movies never entirely give up their secrets and lodge themselves in your mind for all eternity; they can be infuriating, beautiful and haunting as they pull you back for multiple viewings. Phantasm is one of those films. Like a nightmare that haunts you hours after you wake, it’s a movie I have carried with me ever since I first watched it aged twelve.

Mike and Jody Pearson are two brothers still raw with emotion following the sudden death of their parents. Living alone in a once happy family home, Jody has been left to bring up his younger brother Mike but equally longs for escape. While thirteen-year-old Mike lives with the fear that his brother will up and go, dumping him with relatives. Following the mysterious death of Jody’s friend, Mike is determined to find out what lay behind his apparent suicide and opts to hang around after the boy’s funeral for potential answers. But what Mike witnesses makes no sense, as a tall undertaker heaves the coffin out of its resting place before dumping it into the back of a hearse. Intrigued and scared, Mike decides to break into the marble fortress of the funeral home, but the horrors that lurk inside are far more petrifying than anything he could have imagined. This is no ordinary funeral home; it’s a gateway to another world, with the keys held by the mysterious Tall Man, the tiny hooded creatures that do his bidding and the strange flying metallic orbs that drill into the heads of unwelcome visitors.

Phantasm caused me to have more than a few nightmares aged twelve, but it also intrigued me, luring me back again and again to explore the rough VHS recording I owned. But it wasn’t until its arrival on DVD many years later that I found myself exploring Don Coscarelli’s film through an adult lens, and what I discovered partly explained why Phantasm had such an impact on my young brain. At its heart, Phantasm is a coming-of-age tale centred on feelings of adolescent fear, disconnect, and grief. Here it focuses its lens on the painful moment we realise, usually in our teens, that life is finite and death inevitable.

Our first experiences of death come with inescapable, scary and unknown emotions. Questions surround us as we navigate grief for the first time: Is there anything beyond death? Why did they have to die? Why won’t you send me a sign? Phantasm is a vivid nightmare that neatly encapsulates and reflects these fears and questions through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy.

Writer/Director Don Coscarelli builds his exquisite horror from our deepest early adolescent fears. Here the fear of burial or cremation, the funeral home’s sterility, the undertaker’s darkness, and the panic of losing the people who protect and care for us hold the dreamlike narrative together. It reminds us, as adults, of the moment when death suddenly invaded our childhood and stalked our dreams, and it’s here where Phantasm’s horror continues to pull us back as adults. Phantasm was a labour of love for Coscarelli, with the low-budget production spread over two years before wrapping in 1977. However, the film wouldn’t find a distributor until 1978 and was eventually released in 1979, following the success of Halloween the year before. Phantasm offered audiences something unique and different in the landscape of horror, less American and more Italian in its style, cinematography and sound; it would go on to influence the creation of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984 while spawning four sequels.

Phantasm captures the random, haunting nature of the terrifying dreams that invade our sleep as we enter adolescence and scramble to make sense of the one thing we can’t control. Death. It’s artistic, obscure and surreal; a nightmare of no escape and an Italian-inspired horror masterpiece that continues to haunt me but always lures me back for another late-night viewing.


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