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Creature Feature 2:
The Phantasm Series of Don Coscarelli


One of the defining horror films of the late 1970s is Don Coscarelli's Phantasm, a low-budget fright fest that introduced dream-like, surreal nightmare scenarios to American mainstream cinema, the likes of which back then had only been known from Italian horror meister Dario Argento, who claims that most of his films were actually translations of nightmares he had.

Master of the macabre:
Don Coscarelli

The plot of Phantasm revolves around teenage boy Mike, his older brother Jody and their friend Reggie, a balding ice cream vendor. One day one of their friends dies under mysterious circumstances. After the funeral Mike watches a tall man clad in a black suit taking the coffin, loading it into his hearse and driving off with it. Soon the brothers discover that this Tall Man steals dead bodies, transforms them into dwarf-like creatures and hides them in his mortuary, where they are sent to a remote planet, accessible by a dimensional gate consisting of two vibrating metal poles. Among the menaces employed by the Tall Man are monster bugs, the aforementioned dwarves and flying silver spheres that drill holes into heads and drain their victims' blood. The three friends are finally able to destroy the Tall Man (he plunges into a chasm and is buried under huge boulders), but not without suffering casualties, when Reggie is brutally stabbed to death by the Tall Man disguised as a sexy girl. However, soon later it turns out that Reggie is still alive. Trying to talk Mike out of his phantasies about the Tall Man, Reggie reveals to Mike that Jody was killed in a car wreck and everything was just a nightmare. The audience is left puzzled: Was it all really just a dream, a dream within a dream or a ghost story told by Reggie in front of the cosy fireplace? It doesn't help either that upstairs in Mike's room, the Tall Man returns clutching the helpless boy and dragging him through a mirror before the end credits start to roll.

Brothers in peril: Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury)

The Iceman cometh: Reggie (Reggie Bannister)

Despite the convoluted narrative, Phantasm's mixture of classic horror elements and science fiction appealed to horror fans and made it an instant cult hit. It spawned three sequels, which were all written, directed and edited by Don Coscarelli. Furthermore, all four parts feature (mostly) the same recurring actors, most of whom are practically unknown outside of Coscarelli's Phantasm films. It also seemed that Coscarelli had made hours and hours of footage, which were cut from the final picture, resulting in numerous unanswered questions. 

Primal fears: No wonder Mike looks frightened when he faces the sinister Tall Man (Angus Scrimm)

Reggie meets new faces Liz (Paula Irvine) and Mike (James LeGros)....

...and the same old problems: the Tall Man wants a word with Liz
Phantasm II continues right where part one ended: Reggie manages to snatch Mike from the Tall Man and his dwarf army just before the house bursts into flames.
Ten years later, Mike is released from a mental institution, and nobody believes his story about the Tall Man. Mike again teams up with Reggie, who tells him that his brother Joey was not taken by the Tall Man, but killed in a car crash. After discovering that all graves in their hometown's cemetery are empty, they set out to hunt down the Tall Man. Their trip takes Reggie and Mike to the town of Perigord, where strange things are happening: dead bodies come to life again, most people have left in fear and even the town's minister has lost his faith. In Perigord, Reggie and Mike meet Liz, whose grandmother and grandfather have also been taken and turned into dwarves by the Tall Man. Actually, much of the film is narrated by Liz, who for some unknown reason has had telepathic contact with Mike for several years.
At the mortuary they battle the Tall Man's dwarf army, a host of aides and even deadlier versions of the dreaded silver spheres. At last they confront the Tall Man and manage to kill him off by dissolving him in acid.
Of course the Tall Man cannot be so easily dispatched, and just when Reggie, Mike and Liz set off in a black hearse, he returns taking control of the car.

Made with financial backing from Universal Studios, Phantasm II is a much more mainstream experience than its prequel. Due to pressure from the studio, Coscarelli not only had to recast the role of Mike with James LeGros instead of Mike Baldwin, but also had to eliminate all dream elements from the final cut, which resulted in a less surreal, more straight-forward horror actioner. However, the ending once again creates more confusion and does not help to clear up any of the unanswered questions.

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, made 6 years later on a considerably lower budget without the participation of a major studio, continues exactly where the prequel ended: The car crashes, Liz is killed in the accident and Reggie manages to save an unconscious Mike from the Tall Man and his dwarf minions.
Soon later, Mike is abducted from a hospital by the Tall Man and it is revealed that there is a mysterious connection between them when the Tall Man implants one of his deadly spheres in Mike's head. The film also brings back Mike's brother Jody, whose spirit is trapped in a silver sphere occasionally aiding Reggie in locating the Tall Man. On his continuing road trip passing several towns devastated by the Tall Man, Reggie picks up Tim, a teenager trained in the use of deadly weapons, and Rocky, a female ex army soldier, whose friend is killed by one of the deadly silver spheres. They continue to battle zombies brought back to life by the Tall Man and more silver spheres until Reggie finally confronts the Tall Man at his mortuary. The film ends with Mike, half transformed into one of the Tall Man's followers, running off into the desert and Reggie captured and immobilized by hundreds of the Tall Man's spheres.

Even more than its prequel, Phantasm III is a straightforward action/horror/road movie, which also incorporates outbursts of extreme gore and, rather atypical for the series, comedy elements. At that point writer/director Coscarelli had completely abandoned the surreal elements which dominate the first Phantasm and traded dreams and (often implausible) plot twists for violence and humour.

Unusual enforcements for Reggie:
Tim (Kevin Connors) and Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry)

Older but wiser: A. Michael Baldwin is back as Mike


Brothers re-united: Jody and Mike once again battle the Tall Man

Before becoming the personified evil: Angus Scrimm as Morningside

As usual in the series, Phantasm IV: Oblivion continues immediately after part three: Mike drives off to the desert of Death Valley, while Reggie is mysteriously set free by the Tall Man. He once again embarks on a road trip passing deserted town after town, continuously chased by zombie cops and the Tall Man's lethal silver spheres.
Meanwhile Mike arrives in the desert, where the Tall Man already awaits him. Desperate and alone, Mike writes his last will and hangs himself from a tree. Yet, his suicide attempt fails because the Tall Man won't let him die, since he has already plans for him. But Mike refuses to join the Tall Man and finds out he now has the ability to move objects by the power of his will and can conjure up dimension gates. Passing through one of these gates, Mike finds himself in a past time, where he meets a mortician named Jebediah Morningside, who looks exactly like the Tall Man and has built a mysterious dimension fork, a machine which might one day enable him to travel through time and space.
Mike returns to the desert and prepares a plan to finally destroy the Tall Man: Accompanied by his brother Jodie, he once again travels through a dimension gate in order to kill Jebediah Morningside before he can become the Tall Man. However, the plan fails because it seems that Mike was only watching Morningside's transformation into his terrible nemesis from another dimension. Jodie, who is revealed to be one of the Tall Man's evil minions, is then killed by Mike.
Meanwhile Reggie has arrived killing off several of the Tall Man's dwarf creatures. Mike also returns through the gate and manages to set a trap for the Tall Man, who finally perishes in a fiery explosion. Moments later, the Tall Man mysteriously returns from the dimension gate overpowering Mike and Reggie and rips the implanted silver sphere out of Mike's head. Leaving him to die in the desert, the Tall Man vanishes through the gate. Promising Mike to save him, Reggie follows the Tall Man through the gate and disappears.

Originally co-written with Roger Avary and entitled Phantasm 1999, creator Coscarelli had planned the fourth movie as a high-budget conclusion to the series. Unable to raise the enormous budget, he dropped all plans and the original script and made Phantasm IV:Oblivion independently on a miniscule budget. Seamlessly integrating unused scenes from the first film, Coscarelli was able to add another haunting chapter to the series, which marked a return to the first films dark atmosphere without the silliness of Phantasm III. Although Phantasm IV explained a lot, in particular the Tall Man's origin, it once again left the fans hanging in mid air with several unanswered questions hoping that one day Coscarelli would give them a proper conclusion. Unfortunately, eight years later, we are still waiting.
One of several gory moments in Phantasm, where a hapless victim is
drilled and drained by the lethal silver spheres


A mouthful of silver: Phantasm II drastically increased the gore

The priest (Kenneth Tigar) in Phantasm II is surely having a ball
The Phantasm series has often met harsh criticism due to its lack of logic and plausible narrative. But this is exactly, what distinguishes Phantasm from other horror franchises: The Phantasm films have managed to create a mythology of their own, where reality and dream are often not clearly separated. Characters die, come back to life, just to be dead a couple of scenes later. More a series of stylized set pieces than a logical narrative, Phantasm's nightmarish quality, which owes more than a bit to Fred Myrow's simple, yet effective score, is on par with some of the best films by Dario Argento, who always favoured style over content. Much is left to the viewer to figure out after the end credits have rolled. Each part reveals more clues about the Tall Man's origin, but even after four instalments there are enough mysteries left unexplained. In this respect the Phantasm films can be compared to the later works of David Lynch, who utilises similar techniques in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. Of course the Phantasm series lacks the arthouse flair of Lynch's efforts and his sophisticated intellectual approach. After all the Phantasm films are low-budget horror films and often incorporate genre elements typical for more commercial products, which is why they appeal to horror fans and have not managed to cross over to the arthouse audience.
This approach has made Phantasm a unique series, but also locked creator Coscarelli out of the Hollywood machinery. As a consequence, the budgets for the Phantasm film were ridiculously low; even Phantasm II, financed by Universal Studios with the intention of turning it into a lucrative franchise, was made for only $ 3,000,000. Thanks to Coscarelli's working methods and skills the films still manage to entertain and only rarely give away their low-cost origins.



Click here to read last month's Creature Feature:
George Romero's Zombie movies


Next Creature Feature coming soon: the movies of John Carpenter !

© 2006 Andreas Rohrmoser