January 14, 2016
The horror community suffered yet another crushing blow this past weekend. As if it wasn’t enough that Wes Craven and Gunnar Hansen passed away this last year, another icon was lost when Angus Scrimm died on Saturday, January 9th. Over the years, Scrimm became a fixture in horror movies and television shows, appearing in dozens of productions of all sizes and budgets, but fans know and remember him from one role – he was The Tall Man in Phantasm.
Phantasm centers around a young man named Jody (Bill Thornbury from “Secrets of Midland Heights”) who is tasked with taking care of his teenage brother, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin from Brutal and Vice Girls), after their parents are killed. When one of Jody’s friends is found dead of a suspected suicide, Mike follows Jody to the funeral. Mike sneaks into the mortuary, and while he is snooping around, he is confronted by a Tall Man (Scrimm) who scares him off. After the funeral, Mike gets suspicious of The Tall Man when he sees him lift the 500 pound casket all by himself. When Mike tells his brother, Jody is reluctant to believe him, but when Jody investigates the mausoleum himself, he is attacked by a couple of mysterious creatures. Jody and Mike are sure that The Tall Man is not a normal undertaker and that the mortuary is not a normal place, so they enlist the help of their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister from a bunch of movies with names like Doctor Spine and Satan Hates You) to figure out the whole story. But, The Tall Man has other ideas for the trio.
Written and directed by Don Coscarelli (John Dies at the End, The Beastmaster) in 1979, Phantasm is widely considered to be one of the unsung classics of the horror genre. Although Coscarelli had made a couple of low-budget comedies in the years prior, Phantasm was the gateway that led to the filmmaker becoming one of the Masters of Horror. Although it masquerades as a supernatural ghost story, Phantasm also combines elements of science fiction and fantasy into its narrative, so it’s much more than a simple spook movie. Much of the cast and crew for the movie was made up of Coscarelli’s pals, and most of the core members would return for some (if not all) of the four sequels, making Phantasm a fairly consistent franchise throughout the years, at least continuity-wise.
One of those actors who returned for the sequels was Angus Scrimm, and that works to the advantage of the series, because it’s very difficult to imagine a different actor in the role of The Tall Man. Replacing Scrimm as The Tall Man would be akin to replacing Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (remember Jackie Earle Haley?). Although Scrimm had been acting for a while by the time he appeared in Phantasm, his stone-faced gaze and imposing figure turned him into an overnight horror superstar. Angus Scrimm haunted the dreams of the film’s audience just as effectively as he haunted the dreams of its characters.
As horrifying as Scrimm’s performance is, it is not the only ingredient in Phantasm that kept audiences awake at night. The other iconic image from the movie is that of a flying silver ball which patrols the hallways of the mausoleum, impaling unsuspecting intruders and draining them of their blood. The mortuary is also home to a bunch of little druid beings in dark robes and a murderous blonde femme fatale who is responsible for a string of murders around town, including that of Jody’s friend who “committed suicide” at the beginning of the film. To top it all off, the mausoleum’s hearse drives itself! The Tall Man is just the terrifying tip of the iceberg in Phantasm.
Keeping with the low-budget, do-it-yourself aesthetic of Phantasm, Don Coscarelli served as his own cinematographer on the film. Whether by happy accident or meticulous planning, the photography on the film is fairly inventive, considering it predated similar looking movies like The Evil Dead by two years. Coscarelli’s camera spins and flies all over the place, both in character point-of-view action segments and follow-the-silver-sphere aerial shots. Even when the camera is stationary, the cinematography manufactures highly opposing layers of identity in the film; there’s a stark difference between the bright white marble walls of the mausoleum walkways, the dark-as-night creepiness of the graveyard outside, and the artificial red of the fantastical druid dream sequences. Don Coscarelli may have shot Phantasm himself out of necessity, but he made the most of the opportunity and created one of the freakiest looking movies of the seventies and eighties.
Despite all the love it gets from fans, Phantasm is far from a perfect movie. The film is riddled with plot holes, many of which are still left gaping at the end. There’s a confusing back-and-forth timeline at play that messes with the film’s overall narrative structure – a handful of segments are puzzlingly replayed as either flashbacks, dream fragments, or just plain duplicate sequences. Many scenes could be tightened up, with fractions of seconds trimmed here and there to quicken the pace and help the overall flow of the picture. Finally, the performances from many of the members of the amateur cast are questionable; basically, every actor is sub-par with the exception of Angus Scrimm, who seems as if he was born to play The Tall Man. Phantasm has its issues, but none are dealbreakers – the flaws give the film the type of camp, cheese, and corniness for which fun movies from the eighties became known.
Angus Scrimm never had trouble finding work, whether it was in goresploitation films like Scream Bloody Murder, sci-fi slashers such as Chopping Mall, or television dramas like “Alias.” But to most people, horror fans or not, Scrimm will always be The Tall Man from Phantasm, and judging from how many times he reprised the role (the fifth movie, Phantasm: Ravager is in post-production, and Scrimm has been in them all), he wouldn’t have had it any other way.