Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) attend the funeral of their friend Tommy, who apparently took his own life. Jody's teenage brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), who Jody looks after, isn't invited, because after the funeral of his parents he had nightmares for weeks. Nevertheless, Mike is secretly watching the events at the Morningside Funeral Home from his hiding place in the bushes, and is surprised to see that after the mourners leave, a tall man (Angus Scrimm) picks up the heavy coffin on his own and pushes it into the back of his hearse. Couple that sight with the nagging feeling that he is being watched by something unseen, and Mike suffers a growing dread about what is really happening in the mausoleum...
An example of the wonders you can achieve on a low budget, Phantasm was scripted (and edited, and shot) by its young director, Don Coscarelli, who wasn't afraid to give his imagination free rein in the story department. Apparently inspired by Ray Bradbury's classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, which you can sort of see, it started off in the time honoured manner of many horror films, with its youthful protagonist trying and failing to convince anyone, but especially his older brother, that evil is present in their small town, then worked itself up into a relentless series of bizarre setpieces, without bothering to pay much attention to having it all make sense.
After nobody listens to him, Mike decides to collect evidence of the supernatural goings-on on his own, by breaking into the funeral home. Wandering the shadowy store rooms and grey corridors, he is suddenly chased by a flying silver sphere, which, in the film's most famous scene, pursues him until it is embedded in the head of a caretaker at the home, drills through the hapless man's skull, and drains his blood from a hole in the opposite side. And that's not all, as Mike is pursued by the Tall Man, trapping his fingers in a heavy door, then cutting them off, sticking one of the still-moving digits in his pocket, and escaping out of the window, narrowly avoiding being grabbed by cowled dwarves.
Despite being set around a cemetery, Phantasm doesn't fall victim to the clichés of past crypt-based chillers by adding in vampires, zombies or ghosts. Sure, it has its fair share of coffins, and gravestones do erupt from the ground at one point, but there's a macabre, science fiction twist to who the Tall Man is and what he is up to. As far as I can work out, he hails from another dimension and is harvesting the dead to transform them into wicked, diminutive slaves - sort of Jawas gone bad. Presumably to push the numbers up, the Tall Man also turns into a woman and seduces unwary men in the graveyard, only to kill them at the crucial moment, which is what happened to Tommy.
By only following plot logic as far as it takes each scene into the next, the film could be needlessly confusing, but the accumulation of weirdness mainly for effect is an unexpected bonus to the production. The more strange things happen, the more Phantasm becomes like a nightmare, even if there are clunky bits of business as when the panicked Jody is confronted with his own car driving up to him (after a long pause it's revealed Mike is behind the wheel). Mike's fears of abandonment are what drive the narrative, as he believes his brother will leave him just as his parents did - perhaps fatally, if the Tall Man gets his way - and that unease with the idea of being alone and vulnerable informs the hero's predicaments. It features more imagination than many, more expensive films, and in spite of its amateurish quality it rightly became a cult success. Followed by three sequels, which are more or less variations on the same theme. Music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave.