Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm turns 41 today. In celebration, I want to share an essay I wrote for the book, My Favorite Horror Movie: Scream Warriors, about how this bizarre, independent movie changed my life for the better. Enjoy!
Starting high school is one of the scariest things you can experience. I can very clearly remember the night before the first day of 9th grade. I was a mess. On that night, I also made a decision that would go on to affect my life in ways I could have never known.
I rented Phantasm from Wow Video.
I honestly had no idea what the movie was about. I just knew I liked the sound of the title and I needed a movie to distract my nervous mind from the impending reality that I was about to start high school. So I popped in the VHS tape and was immediately taken by the characters…especially Mike. Mike’s fearlessness in the scene where he and the Tall Man engage in a standoff inside Morningside Mortuary astounded me. This kid had balls.
In a way, I saw the movie as an allegory for entering 9th grade. If Mike could take on the Tall Man, his army of undead dwarves, and flying metal spheres, surely I could take on Gloucester Catholic High School. The next morning, I stepped onto the school bus and felt like I had passed through the inter-dimensional portal. I was scared. But then I saw something that gave me some coincidental reassurance. We passed a fleet of ice cream trucks. I could hear Reg in my head say, “We lay that sucker out flat and drive a stake right through his Goddamn heart!” I smiled to myself and knew I could handle anything 9th grade threw my way.
Just as Phantasm helped me get over my fear of high school, it has also helped me understand and accept a much deeper fear: death. I had the opportunity to interview Don Coscarelli on my podcast, Class Of, and he recounted how he vividly remembers the genesis of Phantasm. He was seven years old, lying in bed, when it suddenly dawned on him that he was going to die. That his parents were going to die. Death was not just inevitable, it was a promise. Pretty deep for a seven year old! I think I find this weird comfort and acceptance in the Tall Man as a harbinger of death. Just like Don, I am not in denial that I’m going to expire—but I hope something as bizarre and strange as the Tall Man and his minions are on the other side. Because, well, that’s a more exciting option than nothing.
It wasn’t until years later that I came to truly understand and appreciate the labor of love Don Coscarelli and his team put into Phantasm. The movie serves as a bright beacon of independent filmmaking. Don literally willed this movie and its characters into existence and, now, they will live on forever in the hearts and minds of fans. As a fledgling filmmaker myself, I look to the production of Phantasm for constant inspiration and motivation.
I love the movie so much that for Phantasm’s 40th anniversary last year, I helped organize a “hearse stuffing” contest sponsored by Fangoria, The Corpsepaint Show, and Alamo Drafthouse as a homage to the Avco Embassy publicity stunt that was used to promote the original release of Phantasm in 1979. We fit 30 (live!) fans into a hearse, beating the previous record of 27! There were many people at the event that had never seen the movie before and I felt a great deal of joy being able to introduce Phantasm to new fans. It was a memory that I will cherish forever.
The mystique of Morningside Mortuary continues to capture my imagination, the hard work and passion that Don Coscarelli put into Phantasm continues to inspire me, and, to this day, I try to keep Mike’s fortitude within my heart whenever I feel I need a shot of confidence. My hope is that everyone can take a page out of Mike’s book and don’t fear.
Natasha Pascetta is the Vanguard of the Vault at FANGORIA. She oversees the podcast networks on FANGORIA and REBELLER and is the director/writer of the award-winning short film Road Trash and upcoming short Dark Ages.