It's not all that surprising that a film like PHANTASM was actually made, given the time of its release. The late s and early s were ripe with hundreds of low-budget horror films. What is surprising is that the film turned out so good, despite having nothing but amateur actors and minimal resources available, and has gone on to create possibly the most consistently good horror series in history.
Much of the credit for that fact goes to the man behind the camera, Don Coscarelli, a young man born in Libya of all places, who was not only the director of PHANTASM, but also the writer, producer, cinematographer, and editor! The driving force behind all four (soon to be five) PHANTASM films, Coscarelli had directed only one film (the coming-of-age tale KENNY AND COMPANY) prior to PHANTASM, yet with no experience crafting horror films still managed to create one of the most endearing and constantly entertaining scary movies of the past thirty years. When conceiving the idea behind the film, Coscarelli claims he wanted to be sure to have a scare every five minutes. Amazingly, PHANTASM pulls this feat off, combining a brisk pace with some cleverly thought-out shocks and perfect performances by the young and unknown cast. And though the movie sports plenty of both kinds, it is surprising and refreshing (especially these days) to see a movie that actually has more 'real' scares than 'false' scares. It's also worth noting how well PHANTASM balances its horror with humor. The film never degenerates into self-mockery, but merely tempers its many scares with numerous scenes of laid-back laughs, leaving the viewer blissfully unable to predict what's going to happen next.
Another element that adds greatly to the enhancement of the shocks is the sound work. No other film that relied so heavily on sound effects comes to mind (the closest comparison would be John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, but PHANTASM even surpasses that masterpiece in terms of the importance of audio). The scare sounds are also complimented by an extremely effective musical score, which is at alternate times both haunting and motivating.
Ultimately, however, it is a truly awesome story and the great (but few) characters who inhabit it that really makes PHANTASM the brilliant and enjoyable film that it is. Using only a few major locations and a speaking cast that doesn't even reach the double-digits, Coscarelli manages to perfectly capture the notion of what small-town horror is. There were many films that came before and after PHANTASM that featured horrific events taking place in a quiet little American town, but very few, if any, do it as well as PHANTASM. It is also one of the rare horror films of the modern era that appeals just as well to kids as it does to adults. Few people, be it or , could pull off having a thirteen-year-old protagonist and still get audiences of all ages to relate to the film as well as Coscarelli does here, thanks in equal parts to the minimal-yet-effective screenplay and the acting of young Michael Baldwin. Viewers of all ages can identify with Mike's fear of abandonment, his sense of helplessness, and also his drive and determination to get to the bottom of the evil doings at the Morningside Mortuary.
Finally, it would be a sin to talk about PHANTASM and not mention the man who so expertly provided the film's central villain: Angus Scrimm. A frequent contributor to Coscarelli's work, Scrimm's portrayal of the Tall Man instantly turned the character into an icon among horror fans, one that continues to hold its place among the other great figures of the era. The Tall Man stays with you after the film has ended, a tribute to the wonderful performance given by Scrimm, which, like the film itself, continues to scare audiences to this day.
A universally appealing horror film that never seems to get old, PHANTASM manages to succeed where so many other films fail. The film equally entertains both kids and adults and expertly mixes humor with horror. It's a full minutes of scares and shocks that should definitely not be missed.