Jason Voohrees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Pinhead……these are the ‘patron saints’ of horror that most horror fans think of when they name off their favorite villains of the genre. Over a quarter of a decade has been dominated by these unapologetic masters of murder and mayhem; but there is another among their ranks who is often forgotten about. The Tall Man.
The Tall Man was introduced in Don Coscarelli’s 1979 horror masterpiece Phantasm. In a world where slashers and monsters dwell in the shadows, The Tall Man may be the most at home being shrouded in mystery. Let’s take a moment to try to shed some light on the enigmatic horror of Phantasm!
Phantasm would be the third film Don Coscarelli would direct, having already made Jim the World’s Greatest and Kenny & Company. Don had made waves in the industry at the age of 19 by getting Jim picked up by Universal Pictures. After Kenny & Company he started work on Phantasm on an estimated budget of $300,000 with help from his parents, town locals, and an ensemble cast that he had met from his work on his two previous films.
Phantasm follows the story of parent-less brothers Jody and Michael after the recent death of a family friend. Jody (Bill Thornsbury) and Mike (Michael Baldwin) both have unusual encounters with the local mortician (Angus Scrimm) at their friend’s funeral. These encounters make Mike question the events surrounding his and Jody’s friend’s death, as well as their parents’. What follows is a lucid walk through the shadows and doubts of an adolescent boys brain.
Mike’s investigation into the mortuary leads to the discovery that the mortician (Scrimm’s Tall Man) has been harvesting the bodies of the locals for nefarious purposes. Like any good villain, he isn’t helpless against the meddling teen.
Mike soon enlists the help of Jody and their friend/local ice cream man Reggie Bannister. The three of them must team up against The Tall Man and his army of the bizarre in a fight to save their town, if not the world. Mike also has to take down an even bigger threat; one that can give the Tall Man even more power, his own personal fears.
Phantasm is one of those films that taps into one of the strongest fears that anyone can experience.
Being a child, Mike could do nothing to stop his parents from dying. He couldn’t help his friend Tommy at the beginning of the film, and he’s worried that he can’t stop his brother Jody from leaving him. In an era when most drive in horror films were all about the gore, Don Coscarelli drilled into good old fashioned child hood trauma to power his fear machine. Of course Phantasm delivers on the gore, but it comes in a well deserved third behind story and mood.
By the end of the film, Phantasm’s dreamlike narrative and psychological horrors may leave the viewer confused and a little off balance. Cautious uncertainty of the dark corners of life and ones mind are some intense feelings that not just any director can harness in a viewer. Don Coscarelli does though, and he does it so well.
Coscarelli would score a success with Phantasm. Phantasm’s blend of Hardy Boys-like adventure and Argento’s mood and feel of Suspiria would get Coscarelli the opportunity to direct the fondly remembered sword and sandals classic The Beastmaster in 1982.
Phantasm was such a success that the sequel Phantasm II would be distributed by Warner Bros in 1988, almost a decade after the original. The sequel would continue Mike’s continuing battle with The Tall Man as well as fleshing out a small bit of their backstories. The war would wage on in Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (’94) and Phantasm IV: Oblivion (’98), both being direct-to-video releases respectively.
The franchise would lie dormant until 2014 when news broke that not only was there going to be a fifth installment, but that it was already finished filming. As of this writing, Phantasm: RaVager is slated to premier in theaters and on digital HD on October 7, 2016. Ravager was recently pushed back to this date due to the 4k restoration that the ’79 original has undergone thanks to J.J. Abrams and his company Bad Robot.
If you have never seen Phantasm then you are missing out on one of the most original and respected films of the indie horror genre. With the upcoming re-release of the original and the fifth installment right around the corner, now is one of the best times to be a Phantasm fanatic.