Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Phantasm — following the escalating menace of the Tall Man, a supernatural undertaker from another world who steals human corpses in order to turn them into zombified dwarfs, and his battles with his greatest foe, Reggie, a bald pony-tailed guitar-playing ex-ice cream man.
The Installment: Phantasm (1979)
The Story: The film opens with a graveyard sex scene between a young man, Tommy, and mysterious butterface femme fatale. Just when things are going good for Tommy, the butterface’s face gets even butterier and she transforms into a squinty-faced old man, The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), and stabs Tommy in the chest. Then we cut to Tommy’s funeral. For some reason the police decided that Tommy committed suicide (huh?), which is a super bummer for his friends Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury), Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin), and Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Mike and Jody recently lost both their parents, and Jody has been raising Mike. Too disturbed to attend the funeral, Mike instead watches the funeral from a distance through binoculars. When all the other mourners have left, Mike witnesses the Tall Man – who is the funeral director – single-handily pick up Tommy’s coffin and put it in the back of a hearse. This discovery leads Mike down a dangerous road of further discoveries in which he encounters evil Jawas, a metallic flying sphere that drains people of blood, and some truly perplexing plot revelations!
What Works: “I do know one thing. Something weird is going on up there.” So says the character of Jody to his brother Mike, in a moment of profound understatement.
Phantasm is without a doubt the fucking craziest horror movie to ever spawn a successful theatrical franchise. By any clinical evaluation the movie is a complete disaster. Even when articulately laid out, the story makes absolutely no sense. When combined with the frenetic structuring and editing of the film, which at times feels like we’re getting the wildly abridged version of some 8-hour epic, the film becomes rather forehead-smacking to follow. But, improbably, this is the very essence of Phantasm‘s appeal.
Phantasm feels like a nightmare. Scenes begin and end in unnatural places. Voice overs unexpectedly arise. We tangentially join characters mid-action in scenes that weren’t set-up or foreshadowed. If I hadn’t seen writer/director Don Coscarelli’s other films, it would be easy to assume much of this was accidental. I’m sure some of it is, but as nonsensical as the unfolding of the story may be, there is the sense that the man behind the wheel is in control. Phantasm I think is the closest we’ve come to American giallo; not imitation or homage, but something cultivating the same aesthetics, visual tones and impressionistic storytelling. Coscarelli moves in a hurky-jurky fashion that feels completely ignorant of the standard concept of what a movie should be, almost as if he were making the film up as he went along. From a storytelling perspective Phantasm reminds me a lot of classic Dario Argento, especially something like Phenomena. This film is a minor triumphant of mood over mind.
Above all else Phantasm succeeds most with two things:
1) The Sphere
2) Angus Scrimm
The ball or sphere or orb or whatever you like calling it is easily the most iconic aspect of the film. What is fascinating is how completely unimportant the sphere actually is. Clive Barker always thought it was interesting that people responded so enthusiastically to Pinhead, who wasn’t in that much of Hellraiser and was one of several monsters in a group. But Pinhead was still the leader of that group and had several scenes. The metallic sphere only has one real scene in Phantasm. If your familiarity with the franchise came simply for the posters and magazine spreads and pictorials on-line, you would surely expect Phantasm to be filled with crazy sphere deaths all over the fucking place. Nope. The sphere only kills one guy, but the mere idea of the sphere – flying through the air and possessing a Swiss Army Knife array of deadly protractables – was enough to catapult an entire franchise. And it is quite the kill; nailing an unfortunate goon in the face, grossly drilling between his eyes, draining his head of blood, spraying the blood all over the place, and then the scene closes out with the dead guy urinating onto the marble floor. You are immediately sold on the sphere at this point. Can’t wait for more of the sphere? Tough shit. Hope you weren’t expecting to learn anything about the sphere either. The sphere encapsulates the very spirit of Phantasm: great batshit ideas with zero logical context.
Then we have Angus Scrimm, who has somehow managed to look old for the past three decades without dying or seeming to get significantly older. With only a handful of lines in the film and not that many scenes, much like the metallic sphere, the Tall Man becomes a classic movie monster pretty much the moment we first look at him. His gangly wire-thin body and giant head; that orchestra conductor-esque slicked back mop of hair; that arch squinted facial expression. Not to mention his delivery. It isn’t easy to turn a single word into a memorable quote, but Scrimm managed to make “Boy!” into a catchphrase of sorts. Scrimm kills it.
And of course there is Reggie Bannister presumably playing himself as Reggie, the guitar-playing ice cream man. Though, really, love for Reggie here is entirely retroactive love for Reggie in the rest of the series. He gets a couple choice moments in Phantasm, namely his participation in the storming of the cemetery with Jody and Mike, but is very peripheral.
There are so many bizarre and memorable elements in the film. Coscarelli has a good sense for what will pop off the screen and stick in our minds, and clearly didn’t bother himself with a lot of why questions. The dwarfs, which post-Star Wars are impossible to not see as Jawas, make for humorously creepy adversaries; “Little and brown and low to the ground.” The explanation of why they were turned into dwarfs is retarded, but it doesn’t really matter because they’re fun to watch creep around and attack Mike. When the Tall Man’s hand gets caught in a door, Mike cuts off his fingers. He keeps one of those fingers in a box and later it turns into a giant black fly. Why? Beats me. I’m sure it beats Coscarelli too. But it is one of the film’s more entertaining sequences, featuring one of the film’s best single shorts — Mike looking for the fly, only for it to slowly crawl up over the back of his head. Mike also finds a picture of the Tall Man in an antique store that hints at one of those “He’s always been here!” kind of revelations, but that’s where this thread ends in Phantasm. And one of the most calmly bizarre moments in the movie is an Act I scene in which Mike visits a friend who has a psychic grandmother who doesn’t actually speak herself (her granddaughter speaks for her). In the scene Mike must put his hand into a magic box that seizes him and won’t let go until he learns to face his fear. This bit pays off later, but doesn’t actually explain who the fuck these people are and why they’re living in this sleepy little town. Like the writers of Lost, Coscarelli displays a gift here for weaving half-ideas together to create a pastiche that functions like an elaborate mythology.
I gotta give props to Mike’s amazing don’t-try-this-at-home escape plan when he is locked in his bedroom. He tapes a shotgun shell and a tack to a hammer, then “shoots” his doorknob off. Gold.
Also, the Pearson home has half a mountain lion stuffed and mounted on the wall. This has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, but it is so awesomely tacky and 70’s that I must commend it. That and their bitchin’ shag carpeting. I’ve always wanted shag carpeting.
What Doesn’t Work: While there is a palpable method to Coscarelli’s madness, there is also a lot of so-bad-it’s-good at play. I said the film unfolds like a nightmare, but it is also nightmarish in a different way at times. Take the death of the girl with the psychic grandmother. Shortly after the scene in which Mike gets his hand stuck in the magic box, we randomly cut to the girl at the cemetery’s mausoleum just in time to see her attacked. There isn’t really an explanation of what she was doing there, the whole scene is over before it even begins, and then there is no follow-up on it of any kind. A lot of the movie feels like Coscarelli just went out a shot hours of film, with no script, and then pieced it together into something resembling a story in the editing room. Phantasm is a film that works despite itself at almost every turn.
While I love Phantasm‘s sloppy story, it certainly could have been a stronger film if Coscarelli had come up with a story that, well, made some sense. For one thing, the Tall Man’s motives are almost humorously minor. He isn’t actually after our heroes. He is stealing corpses for the purposes of slave labor on his planet. Now, if someone stole the corpses of my friends and family, I’d be upset too, but compared with the more direct danger of villains like Freddy Krueger or Michael Meyers, that is some weak sauce. And we learn that the Tall Man must dwarfize the corpses in order to withstand the extreme gravity of his world. That is unbelievably dopey to begin with, but it makes little sense when we think about how tall and skinny the Tall Man is. Then there is the ending. Ultimately we build up to the grand revelation that the entire film is in fact a nightmare — Mike’s nightmare he has after Jody has died in a car crash. We learn this after Reggie has been stabbed and killed and Jody and Mike trap the Tall Man in a mineshaft under a giant boulder (ahh, Phantasm), and then we suddenly cut to Mike sitting with Reggie by the fireplace. Reggie informs Mike that none of what we just saw actually happened. Jody is dead. Mike had a nightmare. End of story. So Mike goes upstairs and is attacked by the Tall Man. This is of course the exact sort of huh? ending the film should have, but regardless, that is some nonsensical shit right there. Once again, it is amazing this generated sequels.
A. Michael Baldwin is not a great actor. This is compounded by the awkward nature of his age. His squeaky voice and hilariously girlish scream make him sort of an unpleasant hero. He does fine with Mike’s spazzy teen moments, but any time he’s asked to do comedy or real emotions he falls short. It isn’t surprising that Coscarelli decided to bump Reggie up in importance for the remainder of the franchise.
Best Sphere Kill: There is only one sphere related death here, so gotta give it to that one.
Best Tall Man Dialogue: “Booooooy!”
Best Reggie Dialogue: “The ice cream is gonna be flyin’ fast and furious.”
Reggie Moment of Triumph: Remembering a tuning fork he used earlier in the movie to tune his guitar, Reggie pretends that the Tall Man’s interdenominational portal (which is comprised of two metal rods) is a tuning fork and stops their vibrations, which ends up destroying the portal.
How Do Our Heroes Lose in the End: The Tall Man’s defeat turns out to have been a dream. Then the Tall Man appears in Mike’s bedroom and a Jawa bursts through the boy’s mirror and pulls him inside the black void behind it. The end!
Should There Have Been A Sequel: We’re left with so many questions there almost has to be.
Up Next: Phantasm II.