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  Phantasm
Don Coscarelli, USA, 1979
Rating: 3.8
 

Posted: February 05, 2003

A "Tall Man" and his flying balls. No, it's not the title of a Mapplethorpe exhibit: we're talking here about a low-budget horror classic. Angus Scrimm is the Tall Man, a creepy figure who commands an army of pint-sized zombies and flying spheres, which all but steal the show as they whiz about with a low, pulsating hum, producing blades and drill bits to slice and dice anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in their path. The Tall Man, you see, is meddling with the realm between this life and the afterlife, transforming corpses into his army of the undead (come on now, we've all thought about trying that at one time or another). As luck would have it, he works at a mortuary; he's far too creepy for the 2-7am shift at Circle K, which wouldn't yield nearly as much raw source material for his unholy legions.

Okay, you might be saying. Sounds good so far. But what happens? Glad you asked. Basically, tales of mysterious goings-on at their local cemetery bring a trio of curious idiots -- brothers Mike and Jody and their ice-cream vendor pal Reggie -- into contact with our bizarre mortician. What is it with kids these days? Has too much Scooby Doo warped our senses? When's the last time you decided to go creeping around a spooky old mortuary run by a grotesque madman? Anyway, the usual mayhem ensues, as our ragtag trio of foolhardy meddlers attempts to disrupt the Tall Man's otherworldly schemes. Just when you think he's done for, The Tall Man returns with his army of little dudes for a final showdown at the brothers' home. One gas explosion later The Tall Man and his minion are history -- or are they?

Let's recap. A disturbingly tall sideshow attraction, flying spheres with razor-sharp sticky thingies, midget zombies in mysterious hooded cloaks, two brothers and an ice cream vendor -- how could this not be a classic? Quite honestly, I'm baffled as to why Angus Scrimm never got the respect he deserved for this role. The Tall Man is a great villain, more refined than Freddy Krueger and more ominous than Jason Vorhees. In one scene, Reggie opens the back of his ice cream truck to peddle some goodies, and our Tall Man reaches his hands out to embrace the icy cold of the truck's freezer. Did I tell you this dude is creepy? I don't know about you, but the thought of a villain so focused on his evil, other-dimensional plans that he can't take the time to enjoy an Eskimo Pie...well, it chills me, readers, chills me to the bone. Although the film did spawn three sequels, The Tall Man never became the franchise monster he could have been, and we are the lesser for this cruel twist of fate. Phantasm avoids the tired tropes of the teen slasher genre (all the rage at the time) and delves head first into a pool of supernatural creepiness, topped off with a healthy dose of relevant gore, and thus keeps it real for the horror genre while avoiding excessive campy humor (and, sadly, sufficient gratuitous nudity). But forget all that high-falutin' critic talk. Grab some popcorn, turn off the lights, and prepare to be scared silly by The Tall Man's flyin' balls!

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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

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