Once there was a struggling independent filmmaker whose name was Don Coscarelli, and he wanted to make a horror movie. The 22-year-old had produced and released two features by the end of 1976, both fairly prosaic tales of small town teenage life, both of them lacking that certain something, that frisson which can only come from a sick and twisted tale of murder and monsters and the paranormal. Thus did Coscarelli lock himself away in a cabin to crank out a prosaic tale of small town teenage life that turned un-prosaic rather quickly; a story of a teenage boy's quest to uncover the mystery of just what it is exactly that is happening at the Morningside Cemetery in his quiet neighborhood. This was Phantasm, shot in 1977 and released in 1979 following a lengthy post-production, and in the blink of an eye it became one of the definitive '70s horror pictures, in the last few months before '70s horror got steamrolled into oblivion by the ubiquitous, cheap, and unimaginative slashers.

Cheap Phantasm was; unimaginative is emphatically was not. It looks on paper an awful lot like plenty of other films, past and future, on the model of "inquisitive kid gets in over his head"; horror films and thrillers with one foot planted firmly in bedtime story. What sets Coscarelli's picture apart from its genre cousins is the batshit crazy tone, a certain feeling of his not giving any kind of a shit whatsoever about telling a story that makes sense; it's suggested at the end that some indeterminate amount of the movie might have been a nightmare, even a recurring nightmare, complete with a shocker ending that seems to immediately invalidate that same possibility. But really, we're comfortably in the territory being so effectively mined by the Italians right around the same time Coscarelli was shooting Phantasm, the magical land in which "making sense" is completely ignored, as long as the mood and atmosphere are right, and the story follows in some way the effective logic of a dream.

This effect, which does much to set Phantasm so far apart from the bulk of American horror in the late '70s, was largely an accident: Coscarelli's assembly edit was sprawling and full of much incidental detail and let the plot warm up slowly and methodically, and it was some three hours long. Deciding that nobody in the world would sit still for a horror movie of that duration - one where the horror didn't even kick in for 90 minutes - Coscarelli mercilessly carved over half of the film out, leaving behind only the stripped-down, elemental version of the story, blitzing through its content with a pell-mell intensity that has no time for niceties like sense or coherence. Serendipity, and a director-writer-cinematographer-editor with no ego, for a multi-hyphenate; and surely one of the most appealing things about Phantasm is its tear-ass pacing. At 88 minutes, the film is not long (though it's not so very short by '70s horror standards), and it feels a good deal shorter still, a raw blast of sensory information that feels like it has barely started before it gets crazy and ends; which is also kind of dreamlike, now I think about it.

The opening scene gets things off and running, with a middle-aged man named Tommy (Bill Cone) screwing a hot blonde woman (Kathy Lester) right in the middle of a cemetery at night. Their assignation ends with her stabbing him with an oddly ceremonial dagger; the next we see of Tommy, he's being planted in the ground, with two of his closest friends, Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) serving as pallbearers. Jody, poking around the large structure in the cemetery that seems to double as funeral home and mausoleum, starts to become aware of a peculiar scuffling sound, and out of the corner of his eye seems to keep just barely missing the movement of a small humanoid in brown robes - the editing Coscarelli uses to suggest how this figure remains just out of direct view is absolutely smashing, by the way (incidentally, the "small humanoid in brown robes" nearly derailed the movie just as it was about to start filming, when another indie director named George Lucas included similar-looking characters in his 1977 picture Star Wars, but Coscarelli elected not to change anything, on the grounds that the beings in his movie are otherwise not remotely like Jawas).

Another mourner notices the scuffling creatures: Jody's younger brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), though he has not been invited to the funeral proper; Jody is trying to keep him from having another episode as happened when they buried their parents the year prior. Thus, nobody is aware that he's there spying, able to watch the tall mortician (Angus Scrimm) hoist Tommy's coffin as though it weighed about ten pounds. This, plus the homunculi, is enough to convince Mike that something horrible is going on at Morningside, and he sets himself to investigating what the Tall Man is doing with the bodies he's spiriting away.

That investigation takes up virtually the entirety of the movie to follow, considerably more than an hour: Mike sneaks in to the mausoleum, finds something inexplicable and creepy, and runs back home. Meanwhile, Jody, wishing that he could move out of this crappy little town and get his life back on track and be his own man (a nostalgic musical number between Jody and Reggie is the single sour note in the movie, cutting the momentum off dead, but it's before anything has really happened, so it doesn't hurt much), like it was before his parents' deaths forced him to become a surrogate parent, pays little attention to Mike and his ravings, though to his - and Coscarelli's - immense credit, Jody pretty instantaneously comes around the moment he gets evidence of Strange Doings at the Cemetery, in the form of a dismembered but highly ambulatory finger that bleeds yellow. Phantasm mostly only boasts two locations: the cluttered, homey house that the brothers share, and the uncomfortably smooth marble halls of the mausoleum, and on paper it would sound like the film ratchets back and forth between those two spots with joyless steadiness. That this does not turn out to be the case whatsoever is largely thanks to how steadily Coscarelli continually cranks up the phantasmagoria, with every trip to the mausoleum resulting in weirder and more terrifying revelations and each return to the familiarity of the Pearson homestead showing it to be increasingly less secure, more degraded by the Tall Man and his minions and their actions.

And even that only works because the weirdness is genuinely unsettling and strange. The film's big famous moment - the only part I'd seen or even knew about before watching it - is the matter of a silver ball that ricochet's through the hallways of the mausoleum, latching onto a victims head and screwing a hole into his brain, resulting in a massive jet of blood shooting out. It's an almost ridiculous gore effect that nearly saddled Phantasm with an X-rating (simpler times, the 1970s), but in the best tradition of surrealist horror, it's not disgusting so much as it is inexplicable and disorienting; and for my money, it's not half as memorable anyway as the moment when Mike stumbles across a dimensional portal and finds the Tall Man's homeworld, a ghastly landscape of dusky reds, as good a cinematic depiction of Hell as that decade produced, though I don't know that Hell was the deliberate intent.

Even some of the moments that largely don't work - with a budget this small, Phantasm could hardly avoid some dodgy effects, with the silver sphere in particular looking rather unashamedly shitty the second time we see it - don't break the movie, so much as add to its sense of the inexplicable and the alien. What Coscarelli achieved here was a sort of exercise in disequilibrium: taking the most low-key kind of Americana (presumably, the kind celebrated by his first two films), and cutting it with exaggeratedly horrific concepts (a great early moment: the Tall Man, on the streets of town, stops for a minute, and when he walks on, we see behind him a hilariously prosaic advertisement for slushees). I cannot know if the film would have been helped or wrecked by the addition of that original opening 90 minutes: if the creation of a whole movie's worth of normalcy would have made the encroaching surrealist nightmare that much more unnerving, or if it would have been worth the sacrifice of the Phantasm we have now, one that hits the ground running.

On the whole, I wouldn't want to change it: the film is not at all perfect (it is in fact rather hokey at points, but the hokiness is borne of total sincerity), but it's so very much it's own thing, that I'd consider it a fool's errand to muck with it. For one thing, it's honestly creepy: the lengthy scenes of Mike or Jody trying to figure out where this or that noise is coming from are all of them masterpieces of slow-burning tension, and Scrimm's gaunt, unreadable face is the most terrifying thing about the Tall Man, who for the bulk of the movie is too inexplicable to register as genuinely frightening.

Better yet, Phantasm has the courage of its convictions: there's no doubt that Coscarelli made this out of love, for it's simply too strangely personal to be the kind of moviemaking-by-numbers that would come to dominate horror in the coming decade. Not least because the ultimate explanation for the Tall Man's plot is so damn bizarre - good breeding keeps me from spoiling it, but even if I wanted to, I'm not really sure that I could possibly write a review that dealt with the ending in a way that was able to tie it into any sort of argument about anything. It comes from nowhere but the fevered mind of its writer, putting ideas down because he found them compelling, and not because tradition or cliché told him to. And even if that results in a movie that gets progressively loopier over its last 20 minutes, as it switches from horror to sci-fi, it's hard to argue that Phantasm isn't memorable.

More than this steadfast attachment to its story, and more than its adherence to the chaotic structure of a hallucination or a dream, right down to the deliberate introduction of plot holes and apparent contradictions, what really marks out Phantasm as a labor of love, to me, is its protagonist: Coscarelli is invested in Mike Pearson to a simply shocking degree for an R-rated movie with a 14-year-old lead. Take out the nudity, violence, and language, and in all respects Phantasm could function as a Disney movie from the same period; it is a story in which an adolescent is depicted throughout with respect and admiration, shown to be every bit as smart, capable, and observant as the very best of the adults around him, and it helps that Baldwin's performance, though a bit too wide-eyed (there's an ineffable aura of '80s Spielbergian excess in the way Coscarelli frames the young actor, though this would hardly have been possible in 1977), is the strongest in the film.

There's something delicious about the way Phantasm thus plays with our heads: on the one hand, it cannot be mistaken for anything but a particularly outré gore picture, yet the plot never stops feeling like it's a family-friendly shocker, even more so when we recall the number of made-for-TV horror movies in the '70s that were family-friendly, and yet were also legitimately scary, in a way that no kiddie-horror film these days would even daydream about, if anybody was actually inclined to make such a thing. This combination of the adult and the adolescent is as disorienting as anything else in the fabric of this most self-consciously anti-real movie, but it also give Phantasm a curiously transgressive feeling, a sense almost that Coscarelli is getting away with something. And that, in turn, provides a genuinely sharp edge to a movie that can, in tiny patches, come across as just a tad daft, and needs that little bit of grounding if its hypnotically crazy bends are to be believed as anything other than Italian-style oddness for oddness's sake. That, plus Coscarelli's remarkable skill in his four roles behind the camera, the thick nighttime cinematography and terse editing doing so much to make the most uncanny parts of the movie that much more crawly, results in a movie that could hardly be any better, even if it's not perfect; but the shagginess about it is quite a significant part of what gives the film its charm and personality, and sets it apart as one of the great auteur pieces of '70s genre cinema.

Body Count: Between you, me, and the internet, I really don't know. 3, says my gut, but it could be up to 7, depending on whether or not we believe that characters said to be found alive offscreen are actually alive. I will not even start to wade into the matter of who "really" died vs. who died in a dream.

Reviews in this series
Phantasm (Coscarelli, 1979)
Phantasm II (Coscarelli, 1988)
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Coscarelli, 1994)
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Coscarelli, 1998)