The Tall Man is an iconic horror villain from the 80s that has four sequels under his belt, and has ingrained himself into horror pop culture about as hard and deep as Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. His first movie, Phantasm, came into existence when I was only ten years old, and back then even commercials of horror movies was enough to give me the shakes. I remember seeing Phantasm advertise on TV, that’s how powerful those images were to a ten year old, and this movie is one of a handful of flicks that assaulted me in grade school that also reminds me of this friend I had back then. His name was Rob and I credit him for getting me into Fangoria, even though it kind of repulsed me on one level, due to all the gory photos they could run, and this being the 80s, Jason Voohees and all the knock-offs he inspired were the majority of the gore that freaked me out in its pages.
Rob’s father used to take him to all these horror flicks Friday nights when they opened, and he would tell me about them the following Monday in school, though I still have a vivid memory of him coming over my house one Saturday after he saw Dawn Of The Dead (1978) and telling me about that one. We played on the gymset, while he told me blow-by-blow about it. Though we were in school when he told me about Phantasm. The thing that made an impression on me were the infamous spheres. I had a thing for weird flying things that killed people. I still do, I think. I also thought those little organisms the alien used in Without Warning (1980) to kill people by throwing them like Frisbees were cool too. I constructed one out of cardboard, but I was at an utter loss as to how to construct a silver sphere with spikes that deployed. Rob drew it for me one day and from then on a just had to be happy with images of it on paper.
I still have no memory of when I first saw it, but I can tell you it was on cable and probably not until the early 80s when we first got cable.
The first two Phantasms have always been my favorites as I’ve never been much of a fan of the third and fourth, and as of this review I still haven’t seen the final one. And if a review copy comes my way in the near future I will tell you in no uncertain terms my feelings about it, but the first two are near perfect, with the first being the most effective. I read a review once that said the first one feels like you’re watching someone’s nightmare playing out, and with the ending notwithstanding, that captures the vibe of the movie perfectly. It’s not as linear as the sequels, and to me feels like a stream of nightmarish consciousness; a weird series of events strung together that has this dream-quality logic to it.
I sometimes forget that Phantasm is also an alien invasion film with The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) being an alien not from outer space but from another dimension. His job is to capture, kill and transform humans into these devolved dwarves which are then shipped back to his dimension and used as slave labor. The Tall Man has infiltrated our human ranks as a mortician for Morningside Cemetery, the perfect cover, if you ask me, to keep a steady acquisition of “bodies” coming his way. Not all his dwarves are stored and shipped; he keeps some “operational” as labor to do his random bidding, which mostly comes in the form of acquiring more humans or taking care of any “problems” that might arise. Operating in “goon mode” they are cloaked in monk-like robes that make them look like Jawas except without the glowing eyes.
I suppose you could also consider them a form of security for the funeral parlor The Tall Man runs, but its primary security are those aforementioned silver spheres. These spheres are fleshed out more in the sequels, but here they are triggered when anyone breaks into the Parlor at night and you can consider yourself as good as dead if you get caught in their crosshairs. They aren’t indestructible though. A shotgun blast will shatter them into pieces.
Reggie (Reggie Bannister) has pretty much been the heart of the franchise, but in this first film he’s a supporting character, with the focus being on two brothers, 24-year-old, Jody Pearson (Mike Thornbbury) and his 13-year-old sibling, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). Two years prior to the events of Phantasm they lost their parents in a car accident and Jody has been raising him ever since, but he’s thinking of going off on his own and sending Mike to live with their aunt. Mike doesn’t want this and follows him everywhere afraid he’ll finally up and leave for good one day without telling him.
Mike even pays a visit to a local psychic, and old, blind woman (Mary Ellen Shaw), who whispers to her granddaughter to tell her what to say, and she tries to tell him to relax Jody will take you with him when he leaves. This scene sounds rather mundane but I always found it creepy, especially when the psychic wants to test Mike and this black box just randomly materializes on the table. He’s instructed to put his hand into it. When he does something latches on and he hollers in pain. The test here is to control his fear. The granddaughter and old woman then snicker about it when he leaves.
There’s an ability The Tall Man shows off in this first film that, if I can remember, isn’t ever exploited again in the sequels. He’s a shape-shifter! And the form he loves to take is a hot blonde in a lavender dress. In this form his M.O. is to hang out at the local bar, pick up some dude, take him to the cemetery and kill him in the middle of their make out session. This is how the movie opens, and what we find out is the dude he knifed (he likes to knife people in this form too), is Tommy, a friend of Jody and Reggie’s. At his funeral is when Mike and Jody encounter The Tall Man for the first time. Scrimm is a very tall guy and an imposing one as The Tall Man. That first encounter when he puts his hand forcefully on Jody’s shoulder, startling him and telling him, “The funeral is about to begin, Sir,” made me jump the first time I saw it.
Startled Jody too.
Mike’s encounter, however, is from a distance. He didn’t go to the funeral, but decided to dirt bike around the cemetery instead. Spying on the whole thing with a pair of binoculars he spots The Tall Man putting the coffin in the hearse all by himself. Previously we saw how many guys it took to lift one of those mothers, and they ain’t light, let me tell you, but this dude picked it up and shoved it into the hearse all by his lonesome.
Okay, this “thing” has super strength.
Good to know.
It’s Mike’s curiosity that gets The Tall Man to focus on the Pearson siblings and their friend Reggie. But then again it may have been only a matter of time before he harvested them too. Disguised as the hot blonde he picks up Jody one night and tries to do the same thing he did to Tommy, but Mike interrupts their potential sex. Is it just me, or is it a tad creepy that Mike was spying on his brother as he was about to bone s chick? Mike running by in fear for his life as the dwarves tried to nab him earlier, saved Jody, for he takes off after him. But it’s really Mike’s breaking into the funeral parlor that really got them all screwed. Now The Tall Man is obsessed with making Mike and Jody interdimensional slave dwarves. God, I hate when that happens.
The Tall Man has some tricks up his sleeve for how to deal with these kinds of pesky humans, dwarves and spheres notwithstanding, like using a driverless hearse and having his severed finger change into this “alien fly.” They even have to contend with their dead father whom he turned into a goon dwarf. Reggie is killed by The Tall Man, as the hot blonde, in the final act, but so what, Mike wakes up and realizes it was all a dream, and that it was Jody who died in a car crash not the their parents. And its Reggie who’s been taking care of him, but was it really all a dream? The Tall Man appears in Mike’s bedroom and pulls him through his mirror.
MGM first released Phantasm back in 1999, then Anchor Bay acquired it and released their own version in 2007. And it’s now finally getting the blu-ray treatment, the 4K blu-ray treatment, thanks to J.J. Abrams, who’s a big fan of the movie and who footed the bill to get it remastered. I was surprised by that and equally surprised to see Well Go USA become its distributor. An odd choice since they’re mostly known for distributing Asian flicks here in the U.S. At any rate they gave it a Blu-ray/DVD combo and a standalone DVD release this past Tuesday. You can buy it here on Amazon!
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.85:1 high definition widescreen—5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio, 2.0 English Dolby Digital, English Dolby Digital Mono—English SDH subs only.
This 4K restoration gives the movie a whole new shine! This is the best I’ve ever seen it. There are rumors there’s a CGI sphere in the movie, but I didn’t notice any.
Extras included . . .
- Audio Commentary With Director Don Coscarelli, And Actors Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm and Bill Thornbury
- Graveyard Carz Episode (11:24)
- Interviews From 1979 w/Don Coscarelli And Angus Scrimm (27:58)
- Deleted Scenes (6 scenes)
- 1979 Phantasm Trailer
- Remastered Trailer
The previous DVDs had copious amounts of extras, but for this release they only ported over the commentary, the deleted scenes and the ’79 interview, so don’t get rid of your MGM or Anchor Bay discs just yet, if you still have them. I simply popped out the DVD in this combo and replaced it with my AB disc. The only “new” extra is something called, ‘Graveyard Carz Episode.’ It’s a reality show (never heard of it until now) about these mechanics and in this episode (from 2013) they built a tribute Hemi Cuda based on the one used in Coscarelli’s flick.
There’s supposed to be a boxset coming of all five movies next year.