For Don Coscarelli Phantasm (1979) was truly a labor of love (he wrote, produced, directed, photographed and edited the film) that paid off. Where would Matt and Ross Duffer be if Phantasm hadn’t come before? Forty-one years later and Phantasm can still claim to be one of the most influential horror films of the seventies, if not the horror film that truly established the new directions the genre would head in throughout the eighties.
Phantasm functions as a surreal nightmare world born out of grief and trauma. Coscarelli plays his cards close to the chest when it comes to the high concept at work which adds a greater sense of, not just dread, but unpredictability in the story. Similar to Parents (1989), Phantasm’s world exists exclusively in the mind of a pre-teen boy. Both films are overflowing with symbols and metaphors for masculine anxiety. But where Parents closes its narrative in more and more tightly around the nuclear family, Phantasm opens up to address wider “coming-of-age” issues.
By gradually opening up the scope of Phantasm’s nightmare fantasy Coscarelli is able to inject his film with science-fiction elements that speak to the intersections of popular youth culture. This examination of culture/genre overlaps is more prevalent in Joe Dante’s work, but Dante is much more reflexive and ironic in his aesthetic and far less concerned with atmospheric cohesion than Coscarelli is. For Coscarelli such intersections are merely the byproduct of the story; a natural outgrowth. Coscarelli’s brand of horror and science fiction fusion set the stage for films like Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and others that follow along in that vein.
These are the strengths of Phantasm; its un-ironic approach to genres, it’s adhesion to dream logic, and it’s consistent stylization. If you’ve seen Phantasm then you’re truly able to appreciate the real depth of Xander Harris’ pain when he tries to rent the film on video and the clerk gives him Disney’s Fantasia instead (in the season four episode Fear, Itself of Buffy The Vampire Slayer).