Ahhh, Phantasm. I really like the Phantasm movies. Setting aside the obvious limitations Don Coscarelli had to surmount while making the first, which his ingenuity conquered quite nicely (in most respects) the first Phantasm movie is a dark and atmospheric piece of film making from a time when horror movies as a cultural phenomenon were escalating. Of course fans of the films are often remiss to refer to the Tall Man and his saga of dead-snatching, dwarf-making shenanigans as simply ‘horror’ movies. There is a bent of dark fantasy that runs through the Phantasm films that shows just how ambitious Mr. Coscarelli was with his masterpiece; whether or not you can look past some of the shortcomings determines whether or not you feel as strongly about the films as some of us do. However make no mistake – the Phantasm films are high concept, even if they never quite became as realized as they could have been.
But let’s not just talk about Phantasm as a film. No. I want to talk about Phantasm (the first one at the very least) as a fascinating anthropological and sociological document. One of the most magical aspects of cinema is the ability for such a document to act as, literally, a record; a recording of the point in time and space when/where it was made. This is obviously achieved via setting, costume and technology, or lack thereof. In spite of, or perhaps because of their limitations, Coscarelli’s films are particularly vivid records of an era in Western culture now re-absorbed into the aethyrs of time. When you watch the original Phantasm, even though you see people in similar situations and environments to those we are all used to – driving cars, drinking at bars, picking up chicks (or trying to), suburban homes, burying the dead and making peace with loss – look again. This is small town Americana in an era that is gone, G.O.N.E.; Mike, Jody and Reggie’s town is a view of the past – most specifically our past here in Western Culture – a view of life before the advent of the internet and social technology, which you might not think has changed things all that much since 1979, but ah, yeah. It has.
Technology creeps into our lives in ways that serve to buffer us to it’s sometimes relative strangeness from where we were even just a few years previously, so looking at Mike’s town, the buildings, businesses, cars, social interaction, etc. there is such a sharp, stark gradient to life as we know it today that it is almost alien. Technology, social media, the internet and various other societal factors have changed our world so that what you see on the screen in Phantasm, 1979, isn’t what you’ll probably ever going to see again as the setting for a film like this.
Look at the way the cast is dressed, for instance. Or the fact that Reggie earns a living as an ice cream truck driver. The casual attitude toward guns (there’s pretty much tons of them in every house we see the inside of. And yeah, I know there are parts of the country where none of this is different, but acknowledging that let’s continue for those of us not trapped in timewarp land). Even something as simple and timeless as the bar where Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man picks up Tommy and then later Jody disguised as a hot blond – I’ve been in some throwback dives in the last couple of years in the near south, but hardly anything looks like that anymore. And all of this is essential to the plotting of the films as well. There is an atmosphere of disconnection that used to permeate small towns such as these, making any character’s discovery of nefarious deeds such as those taking place at Morningside cemetery all that much more disturbing because they can’t just call for help on their iPhone or post a status update on facebook that reads, “Mike Pearson thinks everyone should get out of Morningside before the Tall Man and his zombie midgets kill them!”. It is easy to forget how not oh so long ago we were a far less socially connected culture and fairly dependent on modes of communication that were, by our standards today, inconvenient and somewhat crippling. Phantasm is akin to hindsight for movie makers and especially Horror movie makers in that it underlines and reminds us of the isolation true horror instills in the human animal, whether the horrible events occur to an entire town or a single person. To quote Roberta Sparrow, every living thing dies alone.
And if you die in Mike and Jodi’s town, you might die alone, but you’ll come back en masse to kill your friends as a homicidal jawa. Interesting how the social aspect here is seen in the horrible after-life, while the isolation is hauntingly human.
The sequels of course do not quite measure up to the greatness of the original. Sure, budgets dramatically increased – I mean, they really get their money out of the explosions in this franchise, don’t they? But then again there is something wrong with what I just said because even as the budgets increase and the explosions become more bountiful, the Phantasm sequels aren’t a franchising per se. Sure, by hard-lined definition it’s a franchise, but not like most of those other horror flicks from that era were. While Jason, Michael and Freddy all have slightly evolving plots (and I use the word ‘plots’ loosely in most cases here) throughout the sequels, other than Halloween 1 and 2, the rest of these are all installments, or perhaps more accurately, reiterations of the original films. Phantasm is not. The sequels all advance a story that, to me, seems as though it was plotted out well in advance. I might be wrong, but I don’t think Mr. Coscarelli wrote the first film, then tried to find out how to continue it afterwards; the Phantasms all feel as though they are chapters of something that he’d planned out well in advance. And that too, in some ways, is a record of a dying art.
I’ll end this by mentioning that a few years ago I heard rumors that Mr. Coscarelli was considering re-making the films. At first that sounds a bit like bad news, but the reason quoted to me by a source that now escapes me and no amount of searching will rediscover (so maybe it was incorrect) was that he now had the means to make the films on the level he originally wanted to. Granted, I Sell the Dead showed reminded us that Mr. Scrimm has aged quite a bit since he walked purposefully down mausoleum corridors and hollered ‘BOY’ and of course most of the rest of the cast would likewise have to be re-cast, but I can’t help but wonder if re-making Phantasm as a series that could, in what I believe were the director’s own words, be “the Lord of the Rings of Horror movies” wouldn’t just be a worthwhile venture.
Only time will tell. In the meantime, stay away from that blond chick at the bar, she’s baaaaad news brother.