Phantasm: The Strangest Horror Franchise of Them All

After four decades the dream world of the Phantasm films remains unlike any other.

Phantasm
Photo: AVCO Embarry Pictures

Over the years, a number of people have drawn parallels between George Romero and writer/producer/director Don Coscarelli, and I suppose it makes sense. Both made a couple no-budget indie films that were mostly ignored before hitting it big with a surprise cult classic. In both cases the breakthrough horror films were utterly unique at the time, and accidentally spawned their own franchises.

Despite efforts on the part of both Coscarelli and Romero to break away and make some very different films (like Martin and Knightriders in Romero’s case, The Beastmaster and bubba Ho-Tep in Coscarelli’s), for one reason or another both were forced back into feeding the franchise. Both filmmakers, for the most part, spent their careers working independently with very small budgets, but while Romero’s Dead films grew smaller, repetitive, and, let’s be honest, pretty shabby and tired, the wild imagination that gave birth to the original Phantasm only expanded and grew wilder over the next four decades, with the continuing storyline leaping back and forth between universes and dimensions.

The big difference between the two is that while Romero’s first three Dead pictures went on to spawn an overcrowded genre of zombie films and TV shows, Coscarelly’s Phantasm pictures (apart from their clear influence on Wes Craven (remain an indefinable and inimitable genre unto themselves.

As he tells it, at a screening of his light comedy Kenny & Company in 1976, Coscarelli noted the positive audience reaction to a cheap scare, and so decided to make a horror movie next. But unlike the classic Universal horror films he’d grown up with, he’d make something that offered a solid scare every five minutes.

Ad – content continues below

John Carpenter’s Halloween was still two years away, and so the clear blueprint for the standard form and structure of horror films over the next fifteen years had yet to be laid out. The landscape was wide open.    

Coscarelli had two starting points when he set to work on the script. First, he wanted to do something about the potential horrors that lay behind the closed doors of a funeral parlor. Most of us have no real idea what morticians actually do, after all. They could be up to all sorts of diabolical shenanigans in those embalming rooms! And the second was a nightmare he’d had as a kid, in which he was chased down endless white corridors by a flying silver ball equipped with a large needle. After that, and following a sort of dream logic (again two years before David Lynch’s Eraserhead), the script came together.

With no money for niceties like name actors, fancy special effects, lighting set ups, or extras, Phantasm was filmed over the course of 1977, mostly on weekends, and with available light whenever possible. Sam Fuller always instructed young filmmakers that even if they had no money, they had to use their imaginations to figure out a way to get everything in that script up on the screen. Coscarelli clearly took this to heart, even if it meant the film’s iconic silver ball was actually controlled by a guy with a fishing pole, and the giant insect trying to escape from the gunny sack was achieved through a bit of simple method acting and slapstick on the part of the three principles.

Phantasm focuses on a 13 year-old named Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), his older brother Jody (musician Bill Thornbury), and Jody’s best friend, an ice cream vendor named Reggie) future low-budget horror regular Reggie Bannister). After a friend mysteriously, um, “commits suicide” in a graveyard after picking up a tall blonde in a local bar, the three witness some strange goings-on at a small-town mortuary. It seems a mysterious figure known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) is in fact an evil shape-shifting being from another dimension who, disguised as a mortician, has been sending corpses back through a space/time portal to his home planet where they are reanimated and forced into slave labor. Given the force of gravity on his home planet is several times what it is on Earth, the corpses are also shrunk to the size of dwarfs and for some reason dressed in monk’s robes. But that’s only scratching the surface. A few of those inter-dimensional midgets are here on Earth, skulking about a nearby cemetery, driving the vintage hearse, and doing whatever else the Tall Man might ask of them. He also has at his disposal that notorious flying silver ball (in many ways the real star of the film), which patrols the endless white hallways of the mortuary.

Equipped with some sinister-looking rotating knives, the ball swoops down upon any intruders and (in a sequence that originally earned the film an X rating) drills out their brains. Along the way there are also disembodied living fingers that transform into giant grotesque insects, creepy blind fortune tellers, psychic activity, copious amounts of yellow blood, a glimpse across dimensions, a giant tuning fork, references to Poe, Dante’s Inferno and Frank Herbert’s Dune (are you putting all this together as we go?), some believable human drama, several terrifying dream sequences that may or may not be dreams after all, and a dark twist of an ending that, together with the rest of the film, was clearly a major influence on the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Unlike the Freddy films, however, the original Phantasm from start to finish operates on the above mentioned dream logic, in which audience members are simply asked to accept this Absurdist universe, no matter how goofy things get at times.

Although the film was completed in 1977, it didn’t find a distributor until late 1978, after Halloween triggered an explosion in the popularity of horror films. In this new horror-hungry climate, maybe even a weirdie like this had a shot.

Ad – content continues below

It was released in January of 1979, and much to everyone’s amazement, actually found an audience among people who loved horror, but were eager for something a little different. No, it wasn’t the game-changing phenomenon Halloween had been, but it was a solid cult hit, raking in $11.5 million on a $300,000 budget.

Several lean years passed in which Coscarelli didn’t write or direct much of anything, apart from the Conan knockoff The Beastmaster. Then in 1988,noting the success other studios had been having with other horror franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th and the Freddy films, Universal took note of Phantasm’s respectavle profit margin, and approached Coscarelli with an offer. They’d produce a sequel that Coscarellu would write and direct, they’d provide a top-notch special effects team, they’d distribute the film when it was finished, and give him $3 million to do it,. He’d never planned on a sequel when he wrapped the original a decade earlier, but what the hell, right?

Having not planned on such a thing, Coscarelli wasn’t sure where to go with a follow-up story. Then he decided the easiest thing would simply be to pick up exactly where the first film left off, with Mike in the clutches of the Tall Man who, as luck would have it, hadn’t died in that fiery hearse wreck after all. Then he was further inspired by the pair of vampire hunters hitting the road at the end of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. With Jody dead at the end of the original, he’d have Mike and Reggie team up, going on the road to track down the Tall Man as he emptied graveyard after graveyard in small towns across the country.

Being a major corporate studio, of course, Universal had a few conditions when it came to the production. First, they had some say in the casting. Apart from Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man, they weren’t interested in bringing back anyone from the original cast. If Coscarelli insisted, those original, unknown actors would have to go through the same audition process as everyone else. Even then, they told him he could either cast Bannister or Baldwin to play their original roles, but not both. More importantly, when it came to the script Universal didn’t want to see any more dream sequences, no more loose ends, and in fact none of that giddy weirdness at all. Those things just confused audiences. In short, they wanted to strip the sequel clean of everything that made the original what it was. I never understood that, but it sure seems to happen a lot.

The flying killer ball was still there, though, and was in fact the centerpiece of the ad campaign, whose tagline read, “The Ball is Back!”

As has become standard for most every contemporary sequel, apart from the addition of a few new characters and a change of setting (and James LeGros taking over the role of Mike), a number of scenes and situations from the original are simply repeated. Despite those directives from above, however, dream sequences remain plentiful, and in fact propel the plot along, as Reggie and Mike head for Oregon to save a young woman who’s been appearing in Mike’s dreams (Paula Irvine) from the clutches of the Tall Man. And while the flamboyant strangeness of the original is mostly lost, there are a few neat little unexpected touches, like a deadly Frisbee and a drunken priest (the great Kenneth Tigar) desecrating a corpse.

Phantasm II hit theaters in August of 1988, and brought in only a meager $7.3 million. The reasons are probably fairly simple. While the other Big Three horror franchises began putting out sequels almost immediately, Phantasm II came out nine years after the original. Nobody remembered that first Phantasm anymore. While the small core audience from 1979  (like me) was still there, the new younger crop of filmgoers was by that point far more accustomed to cookie cutter slasher films and the splashy big budget effects of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and likely couldn’t make heads or tails of this thing. As straightforward as it was in comparison with the original, compare it with any other horror film in theaters at the time, it must have seemed like surreal madness. What American teenager would want to sit through that?

Ad – content continues below

While Phantasm II’s ending, which echoed the original’s, clearly hinted at another sequel, that lackluster box office prompted Universal to drop the franchise idea. They’d distribute a Third if Coscarelli decided to make one, but that was all. The financing and everything else was up to him.

In a way, it might have been the best thing that could have happened to Coscarelli, because having started construction on the Phantasm universe, he was now free to continue as he pleased without interference from dull-witted studio exacs.  

With that freedom, and after securing a $2.5 million budget, Coscarelli went a little hog wild, beginning with rounding up the original cast (including A. Michael Baldwin as Mike and Bill Thornbury as Jody), now some sixteen years older than they’d been in 1979. He also tossed in a new gun-crazy youngster named Tim (Kevin Connors), Gloria Lynne Henry as a military officer and martial artist, and a whole armada of flying spheres.

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, released in 1994, was a return to the wild unpredictability of the original, only more so. To even begin sketching out the plot is an exercise in futility, Let’s just say that the film once again picks up with Part II’s final scene, but within three minutes you know no major studio had anything to do with this. Along the way, insignificant details from the original become major story points, we learn a bit more about the Tall Man’s methodology and the secret of the silver (and now sometimes gold) spheres, we see why you should never trust a nurse, we’re introduced to a trio of comically villainous zombie looters, and spend a bit of time in other dimensions. There’s also a hot pink hearse.

The whole thing makes as much sense as the dream I had last night about the autistic handyman, the steel cage and the flying dog, but that’s the simple joy of it, and what a Phantasm film is supposed to be.

As expected, with audiences buy that point liking their movies (and particularly their sequels) simple retreads of the well-worn and familiar, Lord of the Dead only brought in $350,000. But now that he was in full indie mode once again, and with a small but hardcore cult fan vase anxious for more, Coscarelli was free to charge ahead.

Ad – content continues below

Giving things a boost, one of those hardcore fans was Roger Avery, who’d co-written Reservoir Dogs and won an Oscar for co-writing Pulp Fiction. He wrote his own Phantasm screenplay, entitled Phantasm 1999 A.D., which he hoped might be the fourth installment. This time the story was set in a post-apocalyptic future, and included a major part, none too surprisingly, for bruce Campbell.

Unfortunately the estimated $10 million budget needed to pull it off was out of reach, so Coscarelli shelved the idea for the time being as he wrote  and directed his own Phantasm IV: Oblivion, designed to lead directly into the Avery script.

Necessarily pared down some thanks to its $650,000 budget, Oblivion, again with the same cast, stretches even deeper into dream logic.

As per tradition, the film opens with Lord of the Dead’s closing scene, as Mike, now with a golden orb in his head as the first stage of his transformation into one of the Tall Man’s minions (see?) escapes and drives away, determined to uncover the Tall Man’s origins. Over the course of the film, Mike hops back and fore through assorted times and dimensions looking for the Tall Man, Reggie does the same looking for Mike, Jody appears in a variety of forms (though mostly as a flying sphere himself(. We meet the Tall Man’s first earthly human incarnation in the form of a seemingly kindly and gentle 19th century innkeeper named Jebediah (who may or may not be married to the blind psychic from the first film, we get a glimpse of the abandoned Los Angeles of the future, and assorted family tensions are aired in Death Valley. And Reggie picks up a woman who turns out to have flying spheres for boobs. Beyond merely working with an Absurdist dream logic, as the series progresses the films (like David Lynch’s very early and very late work) come to  feel like actual dreams, which make some kind of sense as you experience them, but apart  from a few random flashes, are almost impossible to piece together again afterward.

Sadly, Oblivion, which ends on an unexpectedly melancholy note, didn’t turn out to be the stepping stone toward bankrolling that Avery script, and the idea was eventually abandoned.

Despite persistent rumors that seemed to crop up from a variety of sources every few years, that was apparently  that for the Phantasm franchise, even with all the loose ends, unanswered questions, and open-ended storylines. But isn’t that just like a dream?

Ad – content continues below

Then in 2016, nearly four decades after the original, Phantasm returned from the dead, just like the Tall Man had so many times before.

It only makes perfect sense, given that by this point Angus Scrimm was in his nineties, Bannister and Thornbury were in their seventies, and Baldwin was in his mid-fifties, that 2016’s Phantasm: Ravager would close out the series with a storyline about Alzheimer’s, with Mike taking care of Reggie in a nursing home. Suffering from dementia, Reggie slips into and out of consciousness, dividing the film into dream sequences interrupted by dreamlike reality populated with characters from throughout the franchise’s previous entries. There are still a lot of shotguns and flying orbs and evil inter-dimensional midgets, but in the end the overall tone is melancholy, as a man whose grasp of current reality is tenuous at best, tries to take  stock of a life that has essentially been lived in a dream.

Although Coscarelli is credited as screenwriter, this time around his co-writer David Hartman took the director’s chair, and did a masterful job. I can’t think of another contemporary genre franchise, particularly a horror franchise, with the guts to not only push its own boundaries with every outing the way the Phantasm films did, but actually mature along the way. Looking at them the right way, from its origins as a low-budget weirdie shocker (and with the exception of Part II), the films quickly evolved into darkly comic avant-garde narrative experiments. Coscarelli invented his own complex and closed universe, a singular world of shifting realities and few constants, a world of daylight and bright colors and a kaleidoscope of incongruous imagery, with a set of rules perhaps only he understood completely. At least a few of us are perfectly willing and happy to accept that. And to this day the Phantasm films collectively remain the only films I can think of where I don’t want to put my head through the screen when I’m told at the end it was all a dream.