Phantasm is a delirious mix of gore and laughs shot through with the claustrophobic lack of logic of a child's dream. Topped with a Goblin-esque synth based soundtrack, the end result is pitched somewhere between American suburban horror and baffling Euro weirdness, and is a unique and original effort in both subject matter and execution.
Still reeling from the death of his parents, Jody is a troubled teen who is being raised by his older brother in a small Oregon town. While spying on the local funeral home he begins to get suspicious of what is going on there, particularly the hooded dwarves who keep attacking him, and the mysterious Tall Man (played by the brilliantly chilling Angus Scrimm), who can lift a full coffin as though it were a surf board. Who is he and what are his plans for the funeral home residents? And will Jody end up joining them?
Phantasm is chaotic and not always entirely coherent, with some scenes seemingly cutting short or baring no relation to what has gone on before or since. Some of this may be down to time and money, as writer/director Don Coscarelli shot the film at weekends for a few hundred thousand dollars. But this lack of logic often works well, giving the feel of a child trapped in a nightmare, which contributes to the tension. With all the normal rules suspended, anything could happen, and you genuinely don't know what will crop up next.
This sense of being in a child's dream is heightened by the fact that Jody doesn't seem to go to school and during the course of the film gets to do the sorts of things that an adolescent boy would fantasise about, such as shoot guns, drive fast cars, and drink beer. The dream feeling is further enhanced by frequent scenes of characters being chased, something that Jungian therapists consider both common to the human experience and symbolic of someone avoiding confronting some painful emotion or feeling.
Phantasm has more than enough blood for the average gore hound, especially in scenes involving the iconic flying sphere. However, much of the horror comes from the discomfort and unpleasantness of the thought of the remains of the dead, especially those of loved ones being violated and exploited.