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Phantasm

Year: 1979
Production Co: New Breed Productions, Inc
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writer: Don Coscarelli
Cast: A Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm

I recently watched Local Hero and was underwhelmed. I can see how it's had a life of its own because of the continuing groundswell of people who love it, but if you watch it today without all that baggage it just comes across as a fairly middling drama without much presence.

The same thing might happen to you if you come to Phantasm cold so many years later, as I did. I remember being vaguely aware of the iconic Tall Man (Angus Scrimm – like Charles Bronson or Anthony Daniels, he was perfectly happy to milk the franchise for all it could give him and be known for little else) back when this film and one of its countless sequels came out, but I don't remember any desire to see them.

Being a movie reporter and fan in the years since I've come to know how writer/director Don Coscarelli has become one of the cult figureheads of the genre, a lot like Stuart Gordon or Larry Cohen but quite unlike John Landis or Joe Dante who were able to cross over into the mainstream more successfully.

But I decided I should see it just a few years back when news emerged that JJ Abrams was overseeing a 4K restoration. I had no idea it had such a following, but if one of the biggest sci-fi filmmakers in the world had such enduring geek love for it, I figured there must be something in it.

All I can attribute all that love to is that – like many others around my age group – Abrams saw it and loved it in his formative years and the decades of fandom since have warranted ongoing cult acclaim. It's probably no accident Super 8 was set the year it came out

I also know now what an inexpensive labour of love it was, so maybe that's part of the reason Abrams (among its many fans) loves it – Coscarelli's Ed Wood-esque, scrappy, can-do determination to make a movie.

Because honestly, it's not that good. Alongside some of the more distinctive horror themes, characters and motifs of the day like Jason's hockey mask, Fred Krueger invading your nightmares or the extreme gore of the video nasties, it's a bit of a mess of ideas, visuals and plotting, none of it really standing out.

As far as I can remember a few weeks after watching it there's a supernatural being who wants bodies to send to whatever weird other dimension he's from, posing as a funeral director to ensure a fresh supply of corpses and occasionally as a sexually alluring young woman, seducing local men and killing them mid-coitus to keep supply up. Oh, and he has a little steel flying ball full of blades when that doesn't work... and little minions that look like jawas that attack anyone who stands in his way. I did say a 'mess' of ideas, didn't I?

His foils are the very very late-70s-styled brothers who fight him, barely pubescent Mike (Michael Baldwin) his elaborately bouiffanted older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister).

Another friend of the gang dies as the film opens, stabbed to death by the Tall Man in his seductress guise, and watching the Tall Man from afar after the funeral, Mike sees the guy hoist the coffin into the hearse like he was lifting a shoebox and realises something's strange about him.

It goes back and forth between the house, the cemetery and funeral home as Mike tries to figure out what's going on, finally convincing Jody the Tall Man is something paranormal courtesy of a still-alive severed finger (that turns into a room full of weird bugs), and the battle is on.

The effects are very much of their time and the whole thing is supposed to have cost only $300,000 anyway, but despite it being a bit scattered, it certainly reaches far beyond its means. It was apparently based on Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and if your expectations are high after hearing about it for 40-plus years, maybe you should just read that instead. Or just watch it for the appreciation of the genre arts in the very handmade, pre-digital era. If you're hoping for a coherent story you're in for a let-down.

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