Film Society x The Student: “Phantasm”

In the first Film Society x The Student column of the semester, Managing Arts & Living Editor Sophie Durbin ’25 reviews cult horror film “Phantasm,” writing that its poignancy completely defied her expectations.

Film Society x The Student: “Phantasm”
Managing Arts & Living Editor Sophie Durbin ’25 watched 1979 horror flick “Phantasm” on Feb. 9 at Amherst Cinema as part of its Late Nights Series. Photo courtesy of

As a child, I had a recurring nightmare that I was in a hotel being chased by an unseen, sinister force. I would run through the red-carpeted halls and try to hide in one of the rooms, but all of the doors were locked. I would always end up in the elevator, desperately trying to close the door before the monster entered, and then I would wake up.

“Phantasm,” a 1979 film by Don Coscarelli, perfectly captures the simultaneous terror and absurdity of my childhood nightmare. The entire film feels eerily familiar, like the hazy memory of some long-forgotten paranoid fantasy. The dreamlike sequences, vivid colors, and otherworldly sets look more like a David Lynch film than the standard ’70s horror fare I was expecting, creating an eerie sense of deja vu. And because it’s told, for the most part, through the eyes of young protagonist Michael, the film believably captures a child’s juvenile fears.

The story takes place in a small town in Oregon where Michael, whose parents have recently died, suspects that the local undertaker is using the dead bodies at his funeral parlor for nefarious purposes. Michael teams up with his strapping older brother, Jody, and the town’s ice cream man, Reggie, to defeat the malevolent undertaker, who they know only as the “Tall Man.”

While attempting to investigate the strange activities at the funeral parlor, Michael and his friends are pursued by all manner of evil creations sent by the Tall Man, including a flying metal orb that drills into its victim’s brain and ejects their blood in a shooting stream and a host of faceless, murderous “dwarves.”

“Phantasm” is not a film that is supposed to make sense. The plot ranges from merely camp to outright ridiculous. One notable moment is Michael’s sudden epiphany that the dwarves are in fact dead bodies that have been compressed in order to withstand the gravity of a mysterious red planet where the Tall Man sends them to work as slaves — one of multiple revelations for the characters that read as farcical to the viewer. While the film’s goofy tone may turn off viewers expecting a bone chilling horror flick, it makes absolute sense for the product of a child’s imagination.

To add to the general incoherence of the plot, “Phantasm” makes multiple thinly-veiled and unexplained references to sci-fi novels and films of the time. Early in the film, Michael visits the home of a mysterious old woman who appears to be a psychic, where he encounters a recreation of the “pain box” from “Dune.” After he places his hand inside and begins writhing in pain, the woman tells him, “Fear is the killer”— a direct homage to the famous mantra in “Dune,” “Fear is the mind killer.” Similarly, the film’s brown-cloaked, shadow-faced dwarves are almost identical to the Jawas that first appeared in “Star Wars” two years earlier.

At the end of the film, after Reggie dies and Jody helps Michael defeat the Tall Man by burying him in a mineshaft, Michael wakes up in a cold sweat to find a now-alive Reggie telling him it was all a nightmare. In reality, Reggie says, Jody is dead along with Michael’s parents, having died in a car crash. Michael refuses to believe him, and the film ends on an ambiguous note with the Tall Man returning to loom over Michael’s bed, growling his signature line, “Booooooy!”

Was it all a dream? Does it even matter? Some might view the plot twist as a cheap trick but I found “Phantasm” to be a compelling exploration of a grieving child’s psyche. Michael’s grand adventures with Jody and Reggie, along with their defeat of the Tall Man, help him make sense of the death of his family members. Jody always comes to Michael’s rescue during the dream, miraculously procuring an unending supply of ammo to defend them against the villains. Michael’s “nightmare” is actually a coping mechanism, allowing him to imagine a reality in which the best possible version of Jody is still alive.

Michael’s true fear isn’t the Tall Man — it’s losing his brother. The film foreshadows this in an early scene when Jody complains that Michael always follows him around, and indeed, Michael continuously trails after him throughout the entire dream sequence, even when he has to place himself in grave danger in the process. At first it seems that he’s just a little boy eager to emulate his cool older brother, but we later realize that he’s afraid Jody will leave him, permanently, by dying as he did in the waking world.

“Phantasm” is an emotionally heavy film, and surprisingly experimental. It’s no surprise that it didn’t become a commercial success on the same level of other ’70s horror films like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Alien,” which was released in the same year. Nonetheless, it has since cemented itself as a cult classic and has somehow spawned four sequels.

“Phantasm” is further set apart from its peers thanks to its surreal visuals and soundtrack, which complement the film’s complex themes and elevates it from a cookie-cutter horror movie. The colorblocked sets are unexpectedly avant garde. The white marble funeral parlor is particularly striking — its liminal otherworldliness reminded me of the iconic Black Lodge from “Twin Peaks.” Likewise, the spooky, synth score running throughout the film weaves unease into every scene. It was composed by Fred Myrow, who also created the score for the similarly bizarre sci-fi film “Soylent Green.”

Although “Phantasm” is obviously low-budget, its homemade special effects, including a severed finger that inexplicably morphs into a fuzzy evil insect reminiscent of “Beetlejuice,” only add to its delightful surrealism. I may not have been especially frightened by the gore but I couldn’t help but appreciate the sheer absurdity of special effects like the flying death ball and corpses spewing an unidentified yellow goo.

Disguised as a pulpy horror film, “Phantasm” is actually a poignant and subtle examination of grief and the child’s imagination. I couldn’t possibly have predicted the film’s emotional depth based on its poster and description, but it came as a welcome surprise.