review which I initially posted a while back on best-horror-movies.com, which is run by Don Sumner, who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago. I also bought a copy of his book Horror Movie Freak, which has nice mini-reviews of many horror pictures as well as a DVD of the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Thank you, Don!
While the film, being an independent production, doesn’t have quite the budget of Alien (1979), it is a nice exercise in efficiency with the resources at its disposal.
The storyline is: a young boy named Mike (played by Michael Baldwin) becomes suspicious of wrongdoings at the local cemetery following the death of his pal, Tommy. With his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and their pal Reggie (Reggie Bannister), Mike finds out that Tommy’s body, along with others laid to rest there, have been taken by a creepy fellow known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who is really an alien that crushes the corpses to dwarf-size, dresses them in brown-hooded cloaks (?), and sends at least some of them through an inter-dimensional gateway set up at the funeral parlor into his world to be slaves.
The aforementioned alien world, seen only briefly at the climax when Mike accidentally goes through the gateway (which consists of two small poles standing only a few feet apart), has a greater gravity pull than Earth which is why the bodies The Tall Man takes are crushed to Jawa size. Not surprisingly, the fact that the already-dead victims are also dressed like Jawas (but sound like the Tasmanian Devil) made comparisons to Star Wars (1977) inevitable. Phantasm producer Paul Pepperman has since gone on record saying that the dwarves’ look was purely coincidental.
Like Halloween (1978), this movie has protagonists who are easy to root for. Mike and Jody obviously share a close brotherly bond (one reason being that they lost their parents fairly recently), and they love Reggie the same way, as is shown when he and Jody spend time playing music (both Thornbury and Bannister are real life songwriters). Unlike Halloween, however, there is no Loomis character versed in the history of their adversary to offer his/her assistance (in other words, these guys are on their own).
In addition to his killer sphere, The Tall Man has great strength (he lifts Tommy’s coffin by himself after the funeral) and can turn himself into a gorgeous woman (Kathy Lester) with a penchant for lavender dresses, who is listed in the credits as simply ‘Lady in Lavender.’ Indeed, the film opens with Tommy’s death at ‘her’ hands after they just had a nice romp in the graveyard (I guess there were no couches in the parlor itself). ‘She’ almost disposes of Jody in the same manner before being interrupted by Mike running and screaming from one of the dwarves.
The Tall Man is also seemingly immortal as he survives both an explosion (the hearse he’s driving explodes after colliding with a phone poll at the film’s climax) and falling into a deep man-made crevice, as part of a ruse Jody and Mike orchestrates, which is then sealed up with rocks. This makes his final appearance (and, with it, his final line) in the film a nice jump-outta-your-seat moment.
This is not to say that The Tall Man doesn’t have weaknesses. When Mike decides to go to the parlor to investigate, he not only sees firsthand the effectiveness of the spheres (the fellow on the receiving end is a nameless lackey of The Tall Man) but also that The Tall Man has mustard-colored blood when Mike manages to cut off a few of his fingers during his escape. Understandably shocked, he picks up and pockets one of the still-twitching fingers (ewww!), returns home, and brings Jody up to speed. Before they can go to the cops, though, the finger turns into a ugly looking bug (with teeth no less) which our heroes have quite a time containing before they finally down it with the garbage disposal.
I must point out the nice music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. It’s not bone-chilling like the music to Jaws (1975) or Suspiria (1977), but it’s nicely moody and atmospheric, similar to the score of The Fog (1980). Naturally, this film’s success led to sequels, although, interestingly, we had to wait almost a decade before the release of Phantasm II (1988). This time, the film had the backing of Universal Studios and, with that, a bigger budget. Of course, this means the deaths were gorier, but the sphere looks better than ever as well. But, the sequel (along with two others that came afterward) became more and more bizarre-and not in a good way.