"You can turn it upside down, inside out and back-to-front and you might be able to work most of it out, but there will always be one thing that doesn't fit."

Phantasm: a delusion of the disordered mind, a figment of the imagination, a spirit, a phantom, a ghost.

As a successful director of kids films, Don Coscarelli felt like moving into horror. But he was out of ideas so he shut himself in a mountain cabin for a few weeks and dreamt up Phantasm. God only knows what he was smoking in order to conjure a story like this. I've been watching it for more than six years, trying to get my head around it. But, like the most complex of David Lynch's films, there are still some parts of the puzzle that are too warped to fit.

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Mike and Jody Pearson are two brothers, living in small town California. Their parents have recently died, leaving twentysomething Jody in charge of 13-year-old Mike. But Jody is restless and cannot stay cooped up in such a small town for long. Mike dreads that he will dump him with an aunt, or uncle, and disappear beyond the horizon.

But that's the least of his worries. Jody's friend has mysteriously committed suicide and after his funeral Mike, hiding in the bushes, sees the undertaker, a sinister Tall Man, heave the coffin out of the ground all by himself and dump it back in the hearse.

Knowing something ain't quite right about all this, Mike investigates the funeral home and is attacked by hooded dwarfs, flying killer chrome spheres (inspired by one of Coscarelli's nightmares) and is chased by the Tall Man. He gets away, but loses a shoe, and hacks off some of the Tall Man's fingers for proof.

It's not an ordinary finger. It oozes some kind of yellow pus (embalming fluid, perhaps) and still pokes around on it's own. Convinced of supernatural interference, the brothers team up with their ice-cream vendor pal Reggie to kick the Tall Man's head in.

It isn't that easy I'm afraid and the film turns from weirdo horror into positively strange sci-fi, as the trio discover more and more inexplicable activity going on at Morningside Cemetery.

The film doesn't have many faults, although it is quite frustrating seeing the characters do no more than go to the cemetery and go home, then go to the cemetery and go home, for almost the entire time. Coscarelli shot about three hours worth of footage and ended up using half of it. There are loads of fun scenes left out that, while not essential to the plot, could have kept things more balanced.

The total Seventies feel is a major plus, though. Man, I wish I were a kid back then. The big hair, the flares, the cool cars, the loose women and the funky music are all part of this film. The hip Seventies score is also incredibly funky and spooky at the same time. Once you start humming it, there's no stopping.

It's also very different from the typical horror formula of the period. There are no masked killers, no women being chased through woods and no slasher fodder. Mike, Jody and Reggie are bold and decisive and choose to fight instead of running and hiding. The setting of rural California is also a refreshing change from medieval castles, hick villages or haunted houses.

Angus Scrimm, who plays the Tall Man, is no doubt the film's best asset. He hardly says a word, but he OWNS every scene he's in. His physical presence and menace makes him a damn cool horror villain and he ought to be as iconic as Freddy, or Jason.

No matter which way you look, Phantasm never makes complete sense. You can turn it upside down, inside out and back-to-front and you might be able to work most of it out, but there will always be one thing that doesn't fit. Coscarelli claimed that he wanted it to be open-ended and ambiguous as a way of not having to make any sequels.

That tactic didn't work.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2006
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Baffling Seventies horror flick about a scary tall mortician, killer dwarfs and sci-fi spheres
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Director: Don Coscarelli

Writer: Don Coscarelli

Starring: Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Kathy Lester

Year: 1979

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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Blue Velvet
The Phantasm 5 Disc Boxset