32. PHANTASM (1979)

AKA The Never Dead (Australia)

“…when you’re dealing with a movie with this many oddball ideas, and a director who’s not afraid to ‘go weird’ just because he wants to, your best bet is probably just to keep quiet, enjoy the ride, and then see how you feel once the whole crazy experience is over with.”–Scott Weinberg, Fearnet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Angus Scrimm, , Bill Thornbury,

PLOT:  While secretly observing services for a deceased family friend, recently orphaned 13 year-old Mike witnesses an impossible feat performed by the funeral director known only as The Tall Man.  Later, while following the older brother he adores to a tryst in a cemetery, he spoils the romantic ambiance when he tries to warn his brother of a dwarf-like creature he sees scurrying in the shadows.  The Tall Man begins appearing in Mike’s nightmares, and he journeys alone to the isolated funeral home to gather evidence to support his belief that the mortician is responsible for the strange happenings in his New England town.

Still from Phantasm (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • The kernel of the idea for Phantasm came from a dream writer/director Coscarelli had in his late teens where he was “being pursued through a corridor by some kind of flying steel ball.”
  • Coscarelli, only 23 years old when Phantasm began production, not only wrote and directed the film but also served as cinematographer and editor.
  • The film originally received an “X” rating in the United States (a kiss of death at that time for anyone seeking wide theatrical distribution) due to the blood and violence in the silver sphere scene (and the shot of urine seeping out of the dead man’s pants leg).  The scene is frightening and effective, but relatively tame by twenty-first century standards.  According to a widely repeated anecdote, Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin, who liked the film, intervened with the MPAA to secure an “R” rating for Phantasm. Per co-producer Paul Pepperman, however, it was someone from the distribution company who convinced the ratings board to change their verdict.  Champlin’s role was actually to recommend Universal pick the picture up for distribution.
  • A scene where the Tall Man appears in Mike’s dream was selected as the 25th entry in Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The film cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to make, and eventually earned over $15 million.
  • Phantasm spawned four sequels, all directed by Coscarelli. None were as well received or fondly remembered as the original.  Coscarelli would eventually score an underground hit again with the bizarre horror/comedy Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Without a doubt, the unexplained appearance of the flying sphere zooming through the sublimely creepy marble halls of the mausoleum.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPhantasm appears to be a standard horror film at first blush, but as it heedlessly races along from one fright to another, it becomes increasingly obvious that the plot is not resolving, or at least not resolving in any sensible way.  It is also obvious that this scattershot plotting, which elevates atmosphere and psychological subtext  by frustrating the literal sense, is a deliberate choice to “go weird” and not a result of incompetence.


Original trailer for Phantasm

COMMENTS: Mike wakes up to discover the Tall Man looming over the head of his bed like a living tombstone; at his command, cowled dwarfs spring out from the sides and grab the boy.  In the next scene, Mike sees the Tall Man walking about in broad daylight, and, in a stylized slow motion scene, the mortician glances in the boy’s direction as mist from a refrigerated ice cream truck swirls around Angus Scrimm’s gaunt face.

It’s obvious what’s missing between these two scenes: a transition where the boy wakes up with a start in his bed, realizing that he’s just had a nightmare.  The nightmare scene is horror movie cliche meant to mislead the audience and provide a bonus scare outside the main narrative, and the waking-up-screaming scene that typically follows is the logical way to reorient the audience back into the movie’s reality.  (In fact, the movie does include such a reality re-establishing scene at another point later in the film—significantly, from a different character’s perspective).  The audience quickly figures out that the scene with the Tall Man and his homicidal minions never happened, but the absence of the expected reorientation scene actually creates a sense of unease in the seasoned horror fan.  Without the shot establishing that the previous scene was a dream, there’s still a bit of doubt in the audience’s mind that the daylight scene occurs back inside the main narrative, and isn’t part of an ongoing nightmare. We continue to wait for Mike to awaken.

The lack of that expected transition scene exemplifies a couple of things that enable Phantasm to transcend it’s low-budget roots and stand out from the Seventies horror pack.  First, it reinforces Phantasm’s dreamlike atmosphere that emphasizes effect and mood over logic.  It also signals that this movie has thrown away the standard fright playbook and is working outside the comfortable rules. This was director Coscarelli’s first attempt at horror after having previously helmed two children’s films; although he utilizes a lot of jump scares and other standard shock techniques, he’s not wedded to the genre’s conventions and is able to pleasantly frustrate the audience’s expectations.  The standard formula horror film structure involves 1) building up a mysterious monstrous invading presence through a sequence of unexplained menacing events, 2) revealing the nature of the supernatural force—the rules it plays by—so that the weird occurrences make sense, and 3) restoring the disturbed natural order by discovering the monster’s vulnerability and defeating the evil in the final act.  What makes Phantasm unique and memorable is that ignores this formula, and instead keeps building the feeling of mystery from start to finish: as we anxiously await the expected resolution, the sense of things finally coming together and making sense, the film just keeps getting weirder instead.

Explaining the story’s developments (“plot” would be a misleading word, in this case) in detail would be doing the reader who hasn’t yet seen the film a disservice.  Suffice it to say that the story continues to take hard left turns into frightening craziness, careening gloriously from one set piece to another with little logical connection until the tale comes to a seemingly final “solution” to the mystery that is so incredible and nonsensical that it will make most viewers eyes bug out.  Given the unhinged nature of what has come before, with fingers inexplicably transforming into insect monsters and mutant midgets on the prowl everywhere, only such a demented, over-the-top explanation of the Tall Man’s motives and abilities could do.  On the slightest reflection, the big reveal really accounts for nothing we have seen; fortunately, there’s a coda that proves the director knows what he is doing with this tale.

Although Phantasm is tremendous fun for adventurous horror and B-movie fans, and for anyone who enjoys popular cinema with a mildly surreal edge, it’s a movie that especially appeals to boys aged eight to fourteen.  The movie’s horrific core—fear of abandonment by parents and older siblings, fear of being left on one’s own, fear of having to fend for themselves—speaks to their unexpressed anxieties, but, more importantly, the script gives their surrogate Mike all the cool tools he needs to outgrow his dependence on his parents and older brother.  He’s brave enough to break into the mortuary at night on his own, armed only with a knife and a crucifix, and resourceful enough to break out of a locked room by improvising an explosive device from a shotgun shell and a hammer.  Not only that, but if his adventures weren’t so scary, they’d be the height of boyish fun.  Thirteen year-old Mike gets to drive a muscle car at outrageous speeds, hang out with older musicians who treat him as an equal, shoot a gun, drink beer, and generally act like an irresponsible grown-up.  It’s no wonder this movie impressed itself into the memory of so many males who first saw it at a certain age.  Because Mike is such a vulnerable and likable little kid, the rest of us sympathize with him and root for him, even if we aren’t a male aged eight to fourteen.

Phantasm could have been an absolute horror classic, but although it’s originality overcomes a lot of the burdens imposed by its low budget, there are many times that the acting is so sub-par that it makes it hard to suspend disbelief—and this movie requests a lot of suspension of disbelief.  Reggie Bannister as the guitar-playing ice cream entrepreneur and friendly sidekick fares best among the thesps, but the others often struggle to be average.  A. Michael Baldwin, the little boy, has a young Danny Bonaduce cuteness and does as well as can be expected given his youth, but it isn’t one of those transcendent performances that make you forget you’re watching a child actor, and he is asked to carry the emotional weight of an awful lot of scenes all alone.  Bill Thornbury as older brother Jody is acceptable but forgettable.  Angus Scrimm sports a lean, iconic look in the film and makes an excellent impression when he just stands there, but he overplays his lines when he’s required to speak (a breach of taste that’s forgivable only because he’s a villain and we expect some hamminess).  Most of the rest of the cast were amateurs, and sometimes their non-acting is embarrassing and distracting, particularly in the case of the poor little girl who tries to assay the role of the fortune teller’s granddaughter. Although the generally poor acting holds Phantasm back from being all it might have been, on the plus side the producers did luck into a professionally spooky and expertly employed score that makes up for some of the deficiencies by supplying real tension that’s often beyond the actor’s abilities to project.

Phantasm frustrates a lot of viewers who can’t get past the fact that, on the surface, the movie doesn’t seem to make a lick of sense.  But only the most pedestrian tales are actually all about the literal events the characters experience, and only the most pedestrian fans insist that in every movie, every plot point must line up like a row of homes in a tract housing development.  The story of a fictional hero vanquishing a fictional monster is always really about a real person overcoming a real problem (or not overcoming it, as the case may be).  That’s why weird movies can work—if they work on the emotional or thematic levels—even though the plots don’t always observe the rules of cause and effect.  Phantasm is the story of an orphaned boy who now fears abandonment by those who are left to love and protect him; and on an even broader level, it’s a simple tale about the universal fear of death.  Those aren’t novel, deeply buried themes, and they’re not handled here with great subtlety.  But they don’t have to be for the movie to be effective.  Mike’s fear of being forsaken by his brother is made explicit, and when your symbol of death is a funeral director, well, then you’re not hiding your metaphors too carefully.  But Phantasm ultimately handles these universal, existential fears with great skill.  It’s not a story about a real life alien bogeyman who stands six feet seven and has taken a job as a funeral director; it’s about a boy’s subconscious fears, and these fears are expressed in the movie in a way that makes subconscious sense.  The way Coscarelli enstrangens this oft-told death allegory through the script’s rambunctious, off-balance jaunts into the unconscious and the absurd transmutes these simple anxieties into something fresh, mysterious and cathartic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…thoroughly silly and endearing…. what happens next is never more logical than what happened before, but at least something is happening, which often necessitates that characters and facts be suddenly introduced (or dropped) with the kind of heedless enthusiasm that only 8-year-old raconteurs can muster.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…a surprisingly shambolic affair whose moments of genuine invention stand out amid the prevailing incompetence… it’s fair to say the cluelessness proves more endearing than exasperating. The spirit of Ed Wood lurks in the shadows.”–Trevor Johnson, Time Out Film Guide

“…the phantasmagoria grows increasingly weird… Phantasm careens along in this outlandish fashion, and its big scares work because they seemingly continue to emerge from a writer’s feverish subconscious, racked with dread and confusion… a hallucinogenic horror classic.”–Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITE: Phantasm – The Official Site

IMDB LINK: Phantasm (1979)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Phantasm Archives: Fan site with news updates, synopses on all films in the series, media downloads, an active message board community, and more

The Cut Up – Phantasm: Video review of the film incorporating numerous clips

DVD INFO:  The absolutely packed single disc Anchor Bay DVD release (buy) contains audio commentary by Coscarelli and three cast members (not new, but recycled from the Laserdisc release), the trivia-filled 36 minute documentary “Phantasmagoria,” 20 minutes of Super 8 “home movies” taken during the production and narrated by Coscarelli and Reggie Bannister, several deleted scenes including a drunken ice cream fight and the unused “fire extinguisher” false ending, a 30 minute TV interview with Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm from 1979, a TV commercial with the Tall Man pitching Fangoria magazine, and trailers for Phantasm and Phantasm III.

UPDATE 12/9/2016: Coscarelli released a “remastered” version of Phantasm in late 2016, in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack (buy) or on DVD alone (buy). Footage shows that the image has been significantly cleaned up and brightened. We have not acquired a copy, but based on the advertising the special features seem to have been all ported over from the Anchor Bay DVD.

3 thoughts on “32. PHANTASM (1979)”

  1. Putting up a list of weird movies isn’t bad! hahahaha And really, I find this tribute of Phantasm really great too!

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