WARNING: This essay contains spoilers for Phantasm.
Phantasm is weird and fascinating, a chunky mix of delightfully sinister and distractingly campy, but its style and aesthetic do not suggest subtlety or invite a deeply penetrating reading. The best way to come to grips with it on the first watch-through is just to ride along like you’re on a bumpy, gruesome roller coaster, enjoying the earnestness and strange excess as it passes by. Like any good coaster, it’s jerky and unpredictable, and you should step off at the end with your head a bit mixed up.
There are further ways to think about the film, though, and I’m here to present one of them: a broad, selective analysis that should at least provide a greater appreciation of the film’s unifying neuroses. Think of it as sort of a loose analytical tribute, rather than a rigorous close reading, a love letter to a film that deserves to be thought about, but doesn’t seem designed to facilitate it.
My angle here: that the little suburban universe of Phantasm reflects a state of mind… particularly, that of main character Michael, the thirteen-year old boy who has recently lost his parents and is in constant fear of abandonment by his older brother. While I don’t think the events of the plot are meant to fit together neatly, and I don’t think they’re engineered for closure or explanation (the ghouls are short because of a gravitational difference? Really?), I do think the film makes a lot of sense when mapped to a certain terrain of terrified adolescent psychology.
The question naturally arises, especially in light of the film’s final scene: does the whole film literally take place inside Michael’s head? Is this suburb explicitly his imaginary dreamscape, a la Inception or The Cell? I would say it’s defensible to read it that way. However, it’s complicated by the nature of the villain, the Tall Man, who manifests at every level of the movie’s reality: Michael and Jody’s dreams, the general landscape of the town, and then the outer realm that we only see at the very end of the film. This suggests, at least to me, that even though most of the film takes place in a dream, The Tall Man is not strictly a psychological projection or a dream-villain… he is some sort of evil entity that exists outside all these psychological spaces, who’s managed to infiltrate them and break down the barriers between objective and subjective realities. It may be Michael’s dreamscape, but the Tall Man is at least partly in control.
We are given a few distinct hints that “psychogeography” is a fruitful way of looking at Phantasm. After the first funeral scene, there’s a moment with a weirdly-tanned side character who never appears again in the film. He questions Jody on his decision to stay in this crappy town. Jody suggests that he’s there because of Michael, but yes, he hates it… thus, we get an explicit connection between the town and Michael, and an emotional baseline—paralysis and trauma—is established. Jody even says he’s planning to leave, which invokes the contradictory possibilities of escape and abandonment.
This conversation is repeated, in certain respects, at the end of the film, when a suddenly-reincarnated Reggie suggests they go “on the road.” Thus, the film is bookended with indications that the town is a gestation chamber for Michael’s psychological trauma, from which escape is a distant but promising possibility.
Whether you see this town as a hermetically-sealed psychic universe, or just think of it as a normal municipality in some remote corner of suburbia, it’s nice to have a big picture. I’ve undertaken a quick cartography exercise and drawn a map of what I think it might look like, taking into account some of the details: the proximity of the Cantina to Morningside Cemetery, the wooded path from Michael’s house to the abandoned mine shaft, and the apparent isolation of the fortune teller’s house. The map doesn’t really add much to the analysis, but at least it serves to remind us how small this suburban environment really is, and how often we return to a few particular locations.
So what does this town consist of, and what does it say about Michael’s psychology?
This house, where Michael and Jody live, isn’t just any residence. It’s Michael’s childhood home, his refuge, his place of solace, even in the wake of his parents’ death. This is a site of unimaginable power for every child, an inviolable fortress where plans are made and promises are kept… where your older brother can keep you safe by telling you to lock the doors and windows. In keeping with this 13-year old imagination, this house is also an armory of guns and knives, where Michael and Jody can lock and load for their confrontations with their unstoppable enemy.
Consider, then, how terrifying it is for Michael when his home––the deepest, most intimate parts of it!—start to be infiltrated by the Tall Man, who slips without warning into Michael’s dreams. As the drama escalates, the house is infected by a demon bug (easily enough disinfected, luckily), and soon, it’s being threatened with a full-scale siege: the Tall Man at doors and windows, undermining the sanctity of the one place where Michael can still feel protected, like the young boy he still is.
Oddly, the Tall Man is always trying to attack and remove Michael, but he never tries to simply destroy the residence… since this is Michael’s psychological landscape, the house is basically indestructible.
In Phantasm, Michael owns the road. Here, he is independent, self-reliant, and in control, facing imminent danger with poise and self-reliance. After all, he’s a budding car guy, already a capable driver and mechanic at only 13 years old. For Michael, the road is a site of empowerment, leading to adulthood.
Thus, in this film of weird suspense and panic and helplessness, the scenes on the road seem incongruously explosive, like the stuff of action movies. While Michael drives, his hero Jody fires out the back like they’re in Terminator 2. At the site of Reggie’s car crash, Michael tries his best to fight off the mob of dwarfs, though he ultimately loses; and though he’s beaten, he manages to get back up and stumble home to his brother. Later, he achieves his most salient victory against the Tall Man when he is locked in the back of a car, pistol hidden in his waistband. Kidnapping Michael and putting him in the car was the Tall Man’s greatest folly, like trying to trap Clark Kent in a phone booth.
And don’t forget the promise of the road, a mysterious song-line which Michael hopes could one day deliver him from this shitty town: “I think we should go on the road for a while.”
From the first scene in Phantasm, the graveyard is established at the intersection of death and eros. Tommy, the third man in Jody and Reggie’s musical trio, is murdered while having sex behind a grave; immediately, we are shifted to the same cemetery in daylight, as Reggie and Jody attend the funeral. After this introductory scene, we continually return to the graveyard for further plot points, like Jody’s dangerous liaison with the same woman who took Tommy, and eventually Reggie’s death, all on the barren field of Morningside.
Michael generally observes the graveyard voyeuristically, from outside. He watches Tommy’s funeral from the bushes, and later he stalks his brother as he goes out among the graves for a tryst. In these reconnaissance missions, he discovers Morningside as an obscure site of dangerous rituals, always seen from the shadows – funerals, sexual rites, and human sacrifice. The graveyard is strangely impermeable, foggy but translucent, and full of secrets.
Some of these secrets are weird, but relatively benign… the Tall Man’s incredible strength, for instance, and the hooded figures that flit past the graves. But for a 13-year old boy, sex and death are great mysteries, the most alluring and terrifying of secrets, and the graveyard is the ritual site where these are exposed to his curious eyes.
Note, of course, that the final graveyard – the one where we see Jody’s grave – is totally different, lacking the headstones and little hills and contours. In this final scene, it’s as though they’ve ripped all the mystery out of Michael’s inner universe and left something flat, mundane, and perfectly hopeless.
The mausoleum is the inner chamber of the Tall Man’s domain, a recursive non-Euclidean funhouse of marble walls and plaster busts, which always seem to be looking at whoever is trespassing on their territory. The lights cast hard shadows on the floor, and though the place is composed entirely of weird intersecting angles, there seems to be nowhere to hide.
This is, of course, Michael’s underworld, where he is entirely out of control, and even the guardian-angel power of his brother is compromised. Jody’s protection keeps the mirror-ball away from Michael, but when the shit hits the fan—when the Tall Man arrives, or when the lights go out—they can’t stay and fight. Both Michael and his brother just have to get the hell out.
The Mausoleum holds some of the weirdest and most terrifying secrets in Phantasm… like the bizarre security system that manifests as a mirror ball sucking out peoples’ brains, and the disturbing mystery of Michael’s father’s empty coffin. And of course, deep inside this labyrinthine underworld, there is a true inner sanctum, in the grand tradition of enigmatic white rooms at the center of the cinematic universe (see 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix Reloaded for the essential examples). This room is where the dwarf slaves are kept in black plastic tanks, and it’s where a mysterious tuning fork artifact holds open a door to another planet.
This other planet is the inner inner sanctum of Phantasm, and if this whole reading is to hold any weight, it needs to account for that endless red landscape with a single line of ghouls stretching off to the horizon. If I was to guess, I would say that this is Michael’s glimpse of the irrationality hidden deep inside his traumatized mind, the madness at the center of all his fears and emotions and anxieties.
Of course, guardian-angel Jody pulls Michael out of this alternate universe by his belt-loop, allowing us to finish our tour of his psychological landscape. Even so, this inexplicable other universe is still down there, deep inside a 13-year old’s head: a blasted, featureless landscape where friends and family, stripped of their identity and humanity, are forced to trudge off into oblivion. This is Michael’s glimpse of insanity, the black psychological singularity that threatens to engulf the whole psychological architecture that Michael is working so hard to uphold.
With this landscape in view, we can see why Phantasm is a better, more frightening film than we’re inclined to give it credit for. We haven’t even discussed some of the strangest touches… who was the Gardener that dies so early in the film? What’s inside the black box at the fortune teller’s house, which seemed to teach Michael an obscure lesson about fear in the face of the unknown? What psychological role does music play for Michael, with the repeated images of the guitar and the tuning fork? And what are we to make of the many dimensions of the automobile, which is both a symbol of Michael’s power and a dangerous reminder of all the tragedies that have befallen his family?
With these questions lingering at the margins, left adrift and unaddressed, Phantasm gives us a fascinating and cryptic tangle of signifiers, which I’ve tried to structure according to the geographical features that keep recurring in Michael’s oneiric space. These locations may exhibit a striking resonance, but this is certainly only one of many readings of Michael’s multifaceted nightmare. This is a film full of meanings that scurry like little monsters, never still, always glancing back at you seductively before they slip into the shadows.