The late 1970s were a turning point in horror cinema. Halloween (1978), the quintessential slasher, made millions and turned director, John Carpenter, into a celebrated master of the genre. And with Alien (1979), Ridley Scott took that serial killer formula and applied it to the cold interiors of space, where “no-one can hear you scream.” Between those titans of cinema, in March of 1979, Don Coscarelli made his name on the independent scene with Phantasm, which was retitled The Never Dead for Australian audiences. The film found success, but compared to those watershed films, its name doesn’t glow in quite the same way. It’s a stranger beast altogether; far more surreal, far less imitable, yet just as fascinating in its production.
Tracing the plot, simple though it is, goes some way to defining this elusive creature; much more than its wildly misleading poster. It all plays like the morbid nightmare of its child protagonist, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), who finds himself in the clutches of a malevolent undertaker known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). There’s been a rash of killings in his small town, the bodies are mysteriously disappearing, and like the films that would make Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante famous in later years, only our orphaned hero knows who’s responsible. He has a tough time convincing his big brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), that something strange is afoot. In search of proof, the boy soon finds himself in the villain’s mausoleum, which looks like a dreamy mansion on the outside – in reality, it’s the historic Dunsmuir House of Oakland, California, which was also used in A View To A Kill – but hides a warren of marble hallways and dark secrets on the inside. From there, the plot unfolds in lurid visions of the undead, and it falls to Mike, Jody and an ice cream vendor named Reggie (Reggie Bannister) to rescue the townsfolk and their own grips on reality.
So far: kind of a slasher, sort of a dark kids’ adventure, splashes of surreal giallo. This not-quite-thereness has spelled death for many horror films before and since, yet this one prevailed into sequels and an unauthorised making-of book. The story found in the latter is almost purpose-built for a cult hit: Coscarelli made the film over a year’s worth of weekend shoots, and between six and eight months of post-production. The Tall Man’s weapon of choice – a flying silver sphere that stabs its victim’s head and sprays their blood like a garden hose – was made by a local craftsman named Willard Green for around $1,100. Coscarelli’s mother, Kate, pulled triple duty as designer, costumer, and background extra, and took pseudonyms in the credits. The cobbled-together quality shows in unspectacular production values, but ultimately makes it more charming.
Fittingly, much of the narrative works on a fractured dream logic. Scenes cut from one to another jarringly, as if lurching awake from whatever came before, so sex scenes and trippy chase sequences occur within minutes of each other. The synthesizer score bleeds into a clanging sound mix, which is littered with dialogue that’s been awkwardly added in post-production. In fact, the editing process was a labour unto itself. The first cut screened for test audiences ran over three hours, and was met with disastrous responses, so Coscarelli cut out swathes of character development. Thankfully, independent financing meant that he could make any decision that he pleased, right down to which of the many shot endings he wanted. It might be messy, but it’s Coscarelli’s blessed mess, through and through.
The cast felt a sense of ownership as well. Shoestring budgets usually mean high tempers and exhaustion, but there’s none between Baldwin, Bannister and Scrimm, the three actors Coscarelli had in mind when writing the film. Baldwin was already riding high off inexplicable popularity in Japan as a heartthrob, thanks to his and Coscarelli’s previous film, Benny And Company, so he was happy to tackle a new project. Bannister and Scrimm might not have had such fame, but they had a healthy rapport with their director after working on Benny And Company and another preceding film, Jim, The World’s Greatest. Both men made the roles their own, so Reggie developed a penchant for patter that complemented his loyalty as a friend (“You know, we’re hot as love!” he says after his and Jody’s curbside jam session), and The Tall Man took on an iconic leer like the one Scrimm flashed when he wasn’t required on set for a full day. Through the heady mix of influences and harrowing climax, this personality makes it that much more compelling.
Critics were quick to pigeonhole Phantasm nonetheless. The New York Times thought it a “silly and endearing” ghost story, while Roger Ebert only accepted it being scary “by default” of being so boggling. Audiences liked it, though. Not many cult hits nab themselves such a healthy box office taking – the film made $13 million off an estimated $300,000 budget, though there weren’t any accountants on set to check that figure. It came perilously close to a different outcome when the MPAA slapped it with an X-rating, but this got talked down to a more fashionable R by film critic, Charles Champlin. Coscarelli rewarded him with quotes on the marketing materials, and wider audiences flocked to see this strange trip into the unknown, with the squinting-old-man baddie and deadly silver balls. The biggest fans of the film, according to Scrimm, are pre-adolescent boys aged the same as our hero, Mike, and in looking back at the childhood heroes hogging multiplex screens now, it begs no explanation for how that lives on, nor what compelled J.J. Abrams, director of the most successful Star Wars film ever made, to fund its restoration.
Through such loyal fandom, Phantasm has carved out its niche in American pop culture. It sure would like to carve more, though, because few areas of cinema are more attached to the idea of legacy than American horror. Even its stablemates, Halloween and Alien, aren’t immune – Carpenter and Scott are attached to their planned 2017 sequels, and both promise to return to the creepy vibes that made their success. Coscarelli, meanwhile, promises to release the fifth Phantasm this year after many delays, partly in honour of Angus Scrimm’s passing. And to think: the whole thing originated from a dream of his, set in the same long corridor with the same flying metal spheres. In spite of the shambling nature – because of it, even – he surely couldn’t have done it better justice.