There are movies today that really have a strange cult following that we keep questioning yet we understand why. The Saw franchise, for one example, puts the victim in such dangerous situations that engages the audience. The Paranormal Activity franchise seems to be going downhill after taking such minimal scares and trying to increase the terror by showing its fears instead of letting the audience use their imagination. The gimmick of a movie can lead to viewers getting interest. But for something like Phantasm, I never really understood why it got that big of an audience.
Half of me understands why while the other part of me is still left uncertain. There’s portions that work and some of it that really feels jarring and off. The parts that work are when it gets dark and psychological. It really gets your attention when we see the surreal set of a morgue with different rooms and shelves of bodies. The look alone feels very unique as if it was a dark nightmare. But then we get the story and it depends on what kind of person you are to know if you will enjoy this.
Two brothers bond together very well but the younger one named Mike is suspicious of the morgue that his older brother Jody works at. The mortician there, credited as the Tall Man, has an evil plan to take all the dead bodies and convert them into weird dwarf zombies that look like rejected Jawas from Star Wars. Of course, they go through that whole thing where no one believes Mike and he tries to help out his brother. And they eventually find out and have to defeat the evil. On top of that, we have to sit through a lot of podding scenes with wooden dialogue and campy acting collide in the weirdest form.
I feel bad for saying that because I can sense a lot of potential. I saw this movie without any knowledge of the plot thinking it was going to be one of those haunted house scares like Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. You know, group of teens break into a place that is forbidden and try to survive. I thought THAT was the movie I was going to get. Instead, it tries to be more of a physiological scare fest but half of the time, we spend way too much on the humor and character development which drags the film down. I think it wasn’t until 30 minutes in when things finally got interesting but then it dips back to the boring and silly stuff that really detracts.
For example, there’s a scene when Jody gets a girl from a bar and they try to have sex in the graveyard. His little brother Mike tries to spy on them until he notices a creature and darts off. He runs right past the two and Jody tells the girl he’ll be back while her panties are in his mouth. Yeah, that really sums up the level of camp here. I find it strange how this was during a period when horror was getting serious with movies like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and yet campy stuff like this was still being churned out. There are even weird things too like it will start on a high moment like Mike having a nightmare where his bed is transported to the graveyard as zombies surface and grab him. And then it cuts to the next day as Jody goes to the bar to find out what happened to the girl he met. Talk about inconsistency.
The stuff between the brothers is uninteresting, the whole master plan doesn’t make a whole lot sense or even have a motive and when it does make an impacting scare, its very brief and doesn’t make much of an impact. Or go absolutely nowhere. For example, there is a clever scare when the lights go out and all you hear is them talking and sound effects. Now that is a great idea. Letting the audio add to the viewer’s imagination. But then, it cuts to Jody outside the morgue when we have no clue or hint as to how he was able to escape. How weird is that?
The only thing that nearly saves the movie is Angus Scrimm’s performace as the Tall Man. He doesn’t have too many scenes but every time the character is on screen, you can’t help but delight at how over-the-top he plays it. That grim expression, the hammy acting when he calls out “BOY!” at Mike and not to mention that slow walking which is awkward but hypnotic in a sense. My favorite scene is when he is walking down the street as Mike watches from afar. The Tall Man stops in front of an open ice cream truck, smells the chilly fog roaming from the doors and makes a growl sound. Something about that just feels funny to me the way he does that.
But is this enjoyable performance enough to save Phantasm? No and how it ended up getting so many sequels is a mystery to me. My only guess is that because everything is left so ambiguous (trust me, less said about the ending the better. I still don’t understand it) that it leaves viewers replaying it and trying to make their own interpretation of what happened. I do admit there are times when it can be great to look at especially in the morgue scenes which look twisted and distorted. When it tries to be scary, its interesting. But when it tries to be funny/campy, it looses my interest. I want to say this is one of those movies that deserves a remake seeing how weird and clunky it feels. But with a fifth movie on the way, it seems impossible to me. Maybe if Phantasm focused more on the scares and less on the cheese, their could have been this really deep psychological thriller. But as it stands, its an odd film with some interesting visuals that don’t hold together. If you like films with a campy yet eerie tone, this is for you. But if want something deeper and intense like the Nightmare on Elm Street movies or The Twilight Zone, then I have to say this is an unfortunate skip.