Wednesday, October 21, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: The Tall Man - Just Another Working Stiff in Don Coscarelli's Phantasm

There are many iconic characters of the horror genre, some that have become household names. A person may never have seen any entry in a famous film series, but still know Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Leatherface of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Michael Myers of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) or Jason Voorhees of Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980). Another such character who may not be as popular, but is just as noteworthy, is the star of Don Coscarelli's 1979 Phantasm. He's an imposing figure with a deep, raspy voice, known simply as The Tall Man.

Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury) has been caring for his little brother, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), since their parents have died. Mike has an overwhelming fear that his brother will leave him, and he follows Jody wherever he goes, even to the funeral of Jody's friend, Tommy. Watching with binoculars, Mike is soon skeptical of the strange, lanky man (Angus Scrimm) who runs the Morningside Funera
l Parlor. His distrust is based on observing the man lifting the casket -- by himself -- and placing it back inside the hearse after the funeral.

When Jody picks up a young lady at a bar, Mike trails the both of them to the Morningside Cemetery. Hiding in the nearby trees, Mike hears curious noises and is suddenly chased by what appears to be a dwarf adorned in a brown cloak (he describes it as being "little and brown and low to the ground"). Jody has trouble believing his little brother, even when Mike claims that he is attacked a second time while in the garage working on J
ody's car (an achingly beautiful 1971 Plymouth 'Cuda). Determined to uncover the mystery at the funeral home, Mike sneaks in at night and has chilling encounters with The Tall Man, the pint-sized henchmen, and a floating silver sphere that... well, let's just say that it's best to run from it. It isn't long before Jody and his pal, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), join Mike to put a stop to The Tall Man's evil doings.

Coscarelli's film is a creepy and often terrifying horror gem. The sequences inside the funeral home and a mausoleum will make viewers never want to set foot inside such places again. Scrimm is perfectly cast as The Tall Man, with a performance that thrives on his staggering presence. He says very little in the film, but hearing his voice boom, "Boy!" (when he sees Mike) is more than enough to scare an audience. The other performances are satisfactory, particularly from Bannister, and the score is suitably eerie.

The director followed this successful movie with
The Beastmaster (1982), which, like Phantasm, has gradually become a cult film. Coscarelli also wrote and directed three sequels, Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994) and Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998). In 2002, Coscarelli released Bubba Ho-tep, yet another of his movies to achieve a cult following -- and with Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead (1981) fame starring as a still-living Elvis Presley in a retirement home and battling a mummy alongside Ossie Davis, who claims to be JFK, a cult status is not surprising.

10 comments:

Rick29 said...

I’m glad you chose PHANTASM, Sark, because I believe it’s an underappreciated film. Coscarelli creates a very surreal atmosphere—in fact, when I describe this film to friends, I tell them it's the closest I’ve seen to a nightmare captured on the screen. The visuals are very powerful: the Tall Man, the flying sphere, the little creatures, the disposal scene, etc. Plus, for me, the film is a series of loosely-connected plot threads…not unlike how a dream is structured. I saw PHANTASM at an Indiana drive-in when it was first released; I think the second feature was THE EVIL (a pretty good haunted house flick with Richard Crenna). It was one of those drive-in nights where “ghoul brew” was served; it was a generic brand of Kool-Aid (I think) with dry ice in it…I drank it because it was free and I was living on the cheap at the time). By the way, my nephew recommended BUBBO HO-TEP and I thought it was pretty funny.

Gilby37 said...

Good choice for a blog! I remember that this movie even scared my best friend's 17 year old brother who was our "adult." This guy read Stephen King and still got weirded out by Phantasm -- it really is unappreciated. Nice job conveying the creepiness of the movie in your writing.

sarkoffagus said...

This movie really scared my wife. I didn't think she'd have such a strong reaction. But if I yell, "Boy!" (in my excellent Tall Man voice), especially at night when the lights are out, she starts swinging and doesn't stop until she connects with my head or face. I tell her that if it frightened her that much, then it means it's an effective horror film, but she refuses to talk about it or the Tall Man.

ClassicBecky said...

Good article, Sark, and I would like to see this movie. Never have. I can see your envious longing for the "Cuda" is a longstanding thing with you!

sarkoffagus said...

Becky, they made some beautiful cars in the '60s and '70s. I wouldn't say I'm in love with the 'Cuda in PHANTASM, but I do catch myself wondering where the car is and how it's doing when it's not in the scene.

ClassicBecky said...

He's in love, he's in love, he's in love, he's in love, he's in love with a wonderful car!

toto2 said...

Sark, whether you post about dangerous little people ("The Brood") or a nasty Tall Man ("Phantasm") you seem to have a particular passion for the horror genre. The long and the short of it is these are excellent reviews!
The Tall Man really frightened me, too, so I am with your wife on this one. Spheres aren't supposed to fly with intent to kill. And, on that note, I will retreat back to a kinder, gentler place Over the Rainbow, where the spherical bubble contains a very good witch.

sarkoffagus said...

toto, I bet the Tall Man is really sweet once you get to know him. Maybe he and Dorothy could have walked down that yellow brick road, hand in hand. I'm such a hopeless romantic!

toto2 said...

I don't think Dorothy could click her heels together three times fast enough to avoid the inevitable sphere this Tall Man would hurl. Better for Dorothy to stick to a kinder TM, the Tin Man.

Dawn said...

Sark, What a wonderful review. I think this film would scare me to death..