Every so often, a cheesy film transcends the inexperience of its creators, the inability of its cast, or the limitation of its budget to become a legitimate classic in its genre. It can amass a cult following so sincere that its errors (including the complete failure of a subsequent sequel) can be forgiven. Because of this, it is hard to think of this sort of film as cheesy. And yet, when you get down it, the cheese is part of the reason why the film earned so much affection. This weekend’s cheesy movie, Phantasm, is an example of a great, cheesy works which manages to transcend itself.
The plot concerns Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), an adolescent boy utterly terrified his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) is going to leave town without him (again). Jody only returned to attend the funeral of his friend Tommy (Bill Cone), who died in the Morningside Cemetery at the disguised hands of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Mike, who follows Jody everywhere, sneaks onto the grounds and sees the Tall Man lift an entire 500 lb casket by himself.
The incident leads him to visit a fortune teller, who tests him with a box straight out of Dune. Much as the Bene Gesserit device, the box delivers pain only to teach Micheal that fear is his true enemy.
Later than night, Jody goes to a local bar and picks up the Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester), who viewers already know is the Tall Man in disguise. Mike follows them back to Morningside. Their, he finds a creature we can only call a Jawa (it is short and wears a very similar robe to the Jawas of Star Wars fame) who scares the living daylights out of him. In his panic, he runs past Jody and the Tall-Man-in-disguise, breaking up Micheal’s intended night of passion and the Tall Man’s chance to nab his next victim.
When Jody dismisses what he saw, Mike heads back to Morningside. Inside the cemetery’s mausoleum, he encounters a free-floating silver sphere. The sphere gives chase, but gives up when it encounters one of the groundskeepers and drills a hole in the poor guy’s skull. At this point, the Tall Man enters the scene and chases Mike. During the pursuit, Mike manages to chop off some of the Tall Man’s fingers and brings one home for Jody to inspect. The finger, placed in a handy lock box, is initially surrounded by a yellowish ooze, but it turns into a large insect just as their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) comes to visit.
Convinced something is afoot at Morningside, Jody joins Mike’s investigation, but is chased off the property by more Jawas and a driverless hearse. When Mike arrives to offer some aid, they discover the hearse contains the newest member of the Jawa brigade — Jody’s friend Tommy! Now, Jody and Reggie vow to kill the Tall Man, but sequester Mike at an antique store in town. There, Mike discovers the Tall Man has been at Morningside for at least 100 years.
After Mike is locked in his room and manages to escape the Tall Man’s clutches, he finally joins Jody and Reggie at Morningside, where they discover the Jawas are packed up in pods for transport through a trans-dimensional gate to a desert world you can either call Arrakis or Tatooine depending on your preference.
And if all of these ideas sound like the fever dream of an 13-year-old who just lost his older brother in a car accident, that’s the charm of Phantasm. We went into greater plot detail than usual because so much of what makes the film great are the weird, unexplained notions that seemingly arrive from writer/director Don Coscarelli’s stream of consciousness. The Jawas, the Tall Man, and even the Dune allusions feel like the sort of thing a newly-minted adolescent would dream about in the late 1970s; all it’s missing is a healthy heaping of Rush tunes. And, to be honest, it was the sort of thing a newly-minted adolescent in the early 1990s was definitely dreaming about.
Yeah, I was weird kid. Why do you ask?
Phantasm was born out of Coscarelli’s dissatisfaction with the box office performance of his earlier films, the rumor that horror pictures always turned a profit, and his own childhood fascination with the genre. Made for a supposed budget of $300,000 — Coscarelli isn’t sure because the film never had an accountant or a proper budget — the film often feels homemade. Coscarelli’s father provided part of the operating cash while his mother designed some of the creatures and special effects. And to hammer home the can-do, Andy Hardy-ness of it all, Coscarelli cast a lot of friends because he knew they would be available and cheap to employ. This is the sort of environment where cheese (certainly in terms of visual effects and performance) can mature.
But beyond the obvious homemade quality, the film employs some objectively cheesy filmmaking techniques to great effect. The transformation of The Lady in Lavender into the Tall Man is accomplished with a couple of poorly timed cuts. It’s effective even in the face of looking amateurish. Compositions are all over the place with actors too far to the left, too far to the right, or often lost in the darkness of certain scenes. The editing is often choppy, with character voice-over employed to smooth out the discordant transitions from scene to scene. Characters are introduced and forgotten. A streak of comedy embeds itself in the sense of dread. On the whole, the film should be an incompetent mess, but it all somehow adds up to the strange, dreamy mood of the film.
As it happens, Phantasm was produced without a complete script. As filming dragged on for the better part of a year, Coscarelli and his players just kept playing with the various ideas he dreamed up. New script pages appeared and the actors often just improvised — a deleted scene shot at Reggie’s ice cream shop reveals just how improvised the film could be. And as at least some part of the film is meant to be a dream, logic gaps could be a natural part of the storytelling.
This last point served Coscarelli well after a test screening went badly. The film was overlong and spent too much time building Mike, Jody and Reggie as characters. Cutting a lot of the character stuff out (which he later used as the backbone of Phantasm IV: Oblivion) left Coscarelli with this weird symphony of cheesy ideas, incomplete concepts, and an audacious twist ending which manages to utilize a dream fake-out.
Still, it all works.
Performances range from the Scrimm’s wonderful overacting (booyyyyyyyy!!!) to the absolutely dry non-acting of Terrie Kalbus, who plays the fortuneteller’s granddaughter. Anchoring the whole affair is A. Michael Baldwin. His Mike is a perfectly appropriate older boy in the late 1970s. His screams are still high pitched, his indignation makes sense for a child just coming to grasp the notion of adolescence, and his understanding of firearms borders on a social worker’s nightmare scenario. At the same time, he’s the perfect guide through this literal phantasm born of a child’s grief, troubled mental state, and probably one too many readings of Dune.
Reviewers at the time of its 1979 release often praised Coscarelli’s energy, but were unwilling to look at its many technical limitations as anything other than demerits against the production. One review called it a “dilapidated z-movie” with “singularly unconvincing apparitions and contraptions” while Time Out’s Trevor Johnston said it was “a surprisingly shambolic affair whose moments of genuine invention stand out amid the prevailing incompetence.”
And yet, as we keep arguing, that “incompetence” is part of what makes Phantasm so special. It still effectively creates this dream-like moodiness later critics would examine and praise with a minuscule budget, a poorly thought-out story, and a whole lot of gumption. That’s a remarkable thing! To see the Phantasm cocktail fail, one need only look at its immediate sequel, Phantasm II. Despite a higher budget and a Coscarelli who better understood the whole filmmaking process, it lacks for so much of the original film’s charm (although, Reggie Bannister’s performance makes it worthwhile viewing). In fact, it may be worth watching them back-to-back to see how a cheesy movie can become a classic despite obvious flaws, while the same filmmaker using the same ideas, but with greater craft, can lead to something mediocre. That might be more of an academic pursuit, but at least you will see Phantasm in the process; one of the best cheesy movies to ever make its way to release and find cult status.
Phantasm is available for rent on the usual streaming rental purveyors. It is also available on Blu-ray with a beautiful 4K restoration from Well Go USA.