Balls of Steel: Phantasm

Please forgive that title, as I’m feeling very literal today and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies do actually feature Balls of Steel. Well, not just steel, but flying, stabby, drilly, gougey balls of steel. They also feature midgets, a big dude with inexplicable eyebrows, an exceptinal score and the fastest Ice Cream Man in the west.

I’m still not sure if I actually like this installment of the series. I certainly like things about it, such as the score, but I can’t say I’m head over heels in love with the whole package. There are serious, and in one case fairly unforgivable, problems with Phantasm- not least of which that the end manages to be  both simultaneously lame and confusing.

I’m getting ahead of myself here. Phantasm is a film regarded, quite inexplicably, as a “classic” of late 70’s horror. I’m not sure where this utterly unmerited label came from, seeing as the 70’s was the decade with Alien, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and so forth, but nonetheless I keep reading that it is so. I don’t think it is, personally. Sure, Phantasm has more than it’s fair share of memorable scenes, and some quite fantastic imagery, but the last act in particular is so confusing and the whole thing feels so fragmented that I can’t possibly consider it to be “great” let alone “classic”.

Phantasm charts the story of Mike, who witnesses some strange shenanigans taking place at the local funeral home. The Tall Man (Jebediah Morningside, although you don’t discover this until the fourth film) is clearly up to no good, and although nobody believes Mike (certainly not his big brother Jody or Jody’s best mate Reggie, the undoubted star of the series) he nevertheless perseveres. What Mike uncovers are serious trans-dimensional naughtiness, angry buzzing thingummies, flying steel balls of doom, a midget army and a portal that works like a tuning fork. Eventually, Mike, Reggie and Jody manage to drop the Tall Man down a mine shaft, or do they (Mwahahahaha)?

Basically, and you can see where the confusion comes, the Tall Man’s nefarious plot involves snatching bodies and then putting them through the portal, where gravity is so strong that it will crush them into midget size. The bodies will return and work for the Tall Man as his Jawa army (and they do look like Jawas) to further whatever evil plan he’s formed. Except, what the fuck is the plan? Steal more bodies? Kill a few people for fresh bodies? Sit down for a pleasant evening of tea, cookies and parlour games? Damned if I know (I do, actually, but only from the sequels) because the film doesn’t ever help out.

The acting in Phantasm is a bit wooden for the most part. A. Michael Baldwin as Mike is particularly bad, and he’s closely pursued in the crapness stakes by Bill Thornbury as Jody. Reggie Bannister puts in his worst performance of the series as Reggie (although he hasn’t really got a lot to do in this installment), but he’s easily better than the other 2. The acting plaudits, such as they are, all go to Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man. He’s an imposing motherfucker and does a fantastic line in growly evil.

Anyway, so far so shitty sounding. However, and it is a big however, there are several memorable aspects of Phantasm. The first is the simply superb scene with Mikey being pursued by the flying balls of doom down a marble corridor in the mausoleum. This is exciting stuff, and the balls make absolute mincemeat (in a particularly gory and amusing way) of whoever they get hold of.

Secondly, what Phantasm lacks in coherence it makes up for in atmosphere. There’s a superb surreal aura to the film- much of it feels as if you are actually trapped in a bad dream- events happen randomly, characters go from point A to point C without even glancing at point B (just like a dream), and the whole film has a rich, unsettling veneer that helps to excuse a multitude of sins.

Part of the reason for this is the score. The Phantasm score is heavily influenced by Tubular Bells, and works superbly in conjunction with the film to generate a legitimately spooky atmosphere. If anything, the score is better than everything else in the film- and by a long margin. It’s excellent work.

Finally, though, we come to my big problem with Phantasm- I’m going to majorly spoil this one, so it’s coming in Invisitext, but if you are interested and haven’t seen it please do ignore:

Basically, at the climax of the film, the three amigos raid the Tall Man’s lair. Through a series of poorly set-up events (one harks back to a terribly cheesy guitar duet) they manage to blow up the building and foil the Tall Man’s plot by burying him in a “bottomless” mineshaft.

All well and good, until the film cuts and Mikey is talking to Reggie about how he never got over Jody’s death and how miserable he is. Reggie explains that it was all a dream, and they need a vacation. Mikey goes back upstairs to pack- whereupon he’s ambushed by an angry Jawa and The Tall Man. The film ends.

Now, regardless of genre, ending a film like this is never acceptable. I will admit that the atmosphere of the film made this cop-out a real possibility, but I’d been enjoying myself all the way through and it pissed me off to no little extent.

Overall, Phantasm is a seriously flawed but interesting little film. It’s never boring, rocks along at a fair old lick and sports more than enough to keep the casual viewer interested. Mrs. Jarv really enjoyed it, so maybe I’m being harsh, but I’d have to say that I would recommend giving it a look- but more as a curiousity and relic of its time than an actual classic. It’s certainly nowhere near as much fun as its sequels (aside from Oblivion, which is shit), and it is certainly not the worst horror film I’ve ever seen: I give it a somewhat confused 2 Changs out of 4

Until next time,

Jarv

The Phantasm Series

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

15 responses to “Balls of Steel: Phantasm”

  1. Jarv says :

    Yup. Read it through and still don’t know if I like it.

    Never mind, the second one opens with a midget being clobbered in the head with a baseball bat.

  2. just pillow talk says :

    I saw this ages ago, and just remember the scene you mentioned: balls of doom chasing that dude. I really don’t remember much in terms of story, just the creepy tall dude.

  3. just pillow talk says :

    Oh, and I know I’ve never seen the sequels.

    Though how the second opens sounds great. Any movie that opens with a midget automatically is ahead of the game.

  4. koutchboom says :

    I badly need to see these. Been wanting to for the longest time.

  5. Droid says :

    Haven’t really heard of this series before. Not particularly inspired to start. Will wait for the verdicts on the sequels.

  6. spud mcspud says :

    IF THIS ONE DOESN’T SCARE YOU… YOU’RE ALREADY DEAD!!

    Best. Tagline. EVER!

    Oh, and the best thing Coscarelli has ever done is easily BUBBA HO-TEP. Jarv, have you seen that??

  7. ThereWolf says :

    Spot on review.

    I like bits of Phantasm all the way through – particularly the aforementioned ‘chased by balls’ sequence and the excellent Angus Scrimm.

    Sadly, I can’t recall the music…

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