Phantasm (1979) – By Josh Samford

 The Phantasm series, hard to really start up any conversation on the films because no matter what you’re probably going to end up covering the same issues everyone else already has. That’s the trouble when writing on any popular piece of cinema, but sometimes you just have to throw your hat in the ring and seeing as I have just re-discovered the Phantasm series again I figured if I’m going to try to get back into the writing spirit here at Varied Celluloid I might as well start off writing on something I have found a good bit of interest in. Growing up, I figured I had seen the majority of American horror classics, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween… heck, even the Leprechaun series. The Phantasm flicks, as a kid things kind of blend together – and after having sat and watched all four entries in the series over the past two days (they are addictive, what can I say) the best explanation as to why I haven’t been a hardcore fan of the series is that excluding the third film – I’ve probably only seen snippets of any single one of the films. This came as even a shock to me, but as a kid you tend to forget things along the way but I seemed so familiar with the series; I imagine simply because of the flashbacks during the opening of the third film. So, when I finally sat down to enjoy the entire series as a sort of refresher course – I turned out discovering a whole group of films I feel guilty for not truly discovering earlier on in my cinematic experience.

Now, with this film here listed amongst our monthly roundtable review discussion – you might be wondering just what Phantasm might have to do with the little people of the world. I figured it’s long due that the Tall Man and his three foot cronies get some credit for their accomplishments throughout the world… or worlds. Only in a series like this could you get away with getting little people to play zombies ressurected from beyond the grave at one-fourth their original size – and somehow do it in a manner that isn’t really all that offensive. Go figure. Not that I, or the rogues for that matter, would be too offended by just about anything – but throughout the whole series for some reason I just picture Cascarelli being truly respectful of his actors and it shows on film. Even though they aren’t pictured on-screen as the actors usually are – they are never used in quite the way Lucas would use little people for his Jawas or robots. Not that the way they are used here is all too different, but you get the feeling Don uses his actors as more than just props in his features. As someone who is generally pretty freaked out by the little people across the land ("midget porn" is an area I’d rather not even discuss, darn you Duane!) – some might call Phantasm a cop-out; but you’ve got to give it to Phantasm – it’s at least a generally classier role than some. A little better than Willow at least if you ask me.

It seems that now since his great success with Bubba Ho-Tep, Don Cascarelli is finally getting some of the credit he truly deserves, and with a sequel to that on the way and contributing what is considered to be the best entry into Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, he is heading onto bigger and brighter things – but we’re all just waiting for him to complete his original, his baby, the Phantasm series. Until then, the best we can do is try to persuade as many people to absorb these films as we can. The series has it’s highs and lows, and the last installment (Phantasm IV: OblIVion) left even more questions unanswered than the previous three flicks – but even with it, there is still that magic that makes these films so entertaining. Whether by this point, after the cast has aged so considerably; if he can even finish the series at this point it is unknown. Still, whether or not it is finished as it started or if Cascarelli has to move on with a different cast in the future (and let’s pray he doesn’t); we have been graced with at least three fantastic films in as epic a series as ever has been created. A series with, although flawed at time, more continuity in it than just about any major horror series I have ever seen. It is what gives it that ‘episodic’ feel, and makes it feel bigger than it already is and you have to give it to Cascarelli – the guy sets his goals high. So far, I have no reason to doubt his tendency to do so either.

Although a film shot on a sometimes obvious budget, with an assortment of filmmakers probably not all that experienced (and this is the late seventies; not every Joe had the ability to practice making his own films in his backyard like nowadays) – the film still looks and holds up extraordinarily well. There are moments of obvious vision on the part of the director (that scene where the Tall Man is walking down the main street in front of Reggie and the ice cream truck is and always will be a defining moment in cinematic history) and it’s in those moments where you truly get to see how unique a film this was and still is. Where Phantasm shines most, and that is all of the films and even Cascarelli himself, is in the storytelling. Simple, effective and with as many trinkets thrown in to make it as amusing as possible. The Phantasm series on the outside looking in may seem like a really cool flick where giant balls fly around and drill into people’s heads (and that it may be as well), but what actually makes it a classic is it’s ability to do two things: tell a interesting story in an unusual way – and draw outlandish, hilarious and all around amusing three dimensional characters. With that kind of filmmaking at work, what more could you possibly need?

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Rogue Reviewers Roundtable Topic: Roundtable for the Vertically Challenged

Josh’s Review Site: Varied Celluloid