Collins’ Crypt: Movies I Love - PHANTASM

BC revisits the endearing 1979 nightmare flick from Don Coscarelli. 

Since moving to LA and getting involved with Bloody Disgusting and a few film productions, I've found myself in some situations that would blow the mind of the young BC that lived in Massachusetts and read Fangoria in class. And while it'll be tough to beat sitting on stage with my hero (John Carpenter) talking about his films, one of my favorites had nothing to do with me - just a right place/right time situation. It was the premiere of Chillerama, a film that boasts some minor contributions from yours truly, which was held in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. The screen was outside, but the check-in table and a small reception were held inside the big mausoleum. Just after checking in and wandering around looking for a bathroom, suddenly I was face to face with The Tall Man! INSIDE A MAUSOLEUM!

Of course, he wasn't out to turn me into a dwarf and send me through some spacegate. It was just actor Angus Scrimm, a VIP guest of the screening who just happened to be walking down one of the hallways in a location that looked a lot like the one from his famous film. Still, while I was a touch unnerved for a second, I can't imagine what the reaction of a younger, more impressionable BC would have been - I may have recreated another scene from the movie by falling to the floor and pissing my pants.

I can't recall the first time I watched Phantasm; it was definitely high school - maybe 1995 or 1996? Some time before the fourth film was released in 1998, anyway. And before Scream, because I remember at that time, apart from my undying Halloween obsession, I wasn't as into horror as I had been in the late '80s and early '90s. This was due to that decade's incredibly shitty genre output, during which we'd be lucky to get MAYBE two good horror movies per year, so I was mostly watching action films and very rarely going back to find good horror films that I had missed. But I rented the film for some reason (probably inspired by a Fangoria issue, actually) and was kind of blown away by it; I was at that perfect age for such a movie, old enough to appreciate that it wasn't as violent or action packed as most of the horror films I watched, but still young enough to get freaked out by its strange story and nightmare "logic."

The story sounds like something out of a YA horror novel when it's summarized: a young boy suspects that the local mortician is up to no good, and asks his skeptical older brother to help him prove it, putting them both in danger. But it's so much more than that - tying in alternate dimensions, flying silver spheres that can drill holes into your head, Jawa-like henchmen, the world's most dedicated ice cream man, fortune tellers, dream sequences... it's admirably overstuffed in ways that are rarely seen these days, and even more impressive when you consider its low budget (less than Halloween's, which was far more straightforward and "simple") and the fact that there was nothing else like it at the time. Nowadays, most of the independent horror productions are just pale retreads of recent Hollywood successes (expect to see Sinister wannabes in the next year or so, plus a few more possession movies), so it's just charming to think of a young Don Coscarelli making this crazy movie that has all the hallmarks of a true independent production: his dad was the producer, his mom designed one of the creatures (and later wrote the novelization) and the extras were all family members of either himself or one of the other actors.

And it's a good movie! Today, if we see a movie that has the same last name(s) popping up with troubling frequency during the end credits, it's almost guaranteed to be a mess, but Phantasm escapes that stigma handily. The FX are pretty good (love the detached finger), the mausoleum set is fairly impressive, and it has a great villain in Scrimm's Tall Man, who says few words but ranks up there with Freddy and Pinhead among horror icons that can scare us with words just as much as actions - something the Michaels and Jasons of the world can never do. Plus it's just plain scary; there are more creepout moments in this one film than in all of the Paranormal Activity sequels combined. The fortune teller laughing always struck me as particularly unsettling, and damned if this movie doesn't have one of the all time best mirror scares ever - Mike's delayed reaction making it all that much more intense.

It's also got heart, something most horror films of any period tend to miss. It might be a little lost in the muddled narrative, but at its core is the story of a kid who is trying to process an insane amount of loss at an early age. His parents are recently dead, as is his brother's best friend, and now his brother - all he has left - is planning to leave town. To me, Mike not only had legit fears about the creepy mortician and whether or not their parents' bodies were safe, but he also saw a way to keep his brother around, helping him with this mystery. There's a wonderful moment where Mike presents Jody with evidence that his stories are true, and you think you know how it will go down - the evidence (a disembodied finger that is still "alive) will be missing and his claims will be dismissed as a little kid messing around. But the finger is there, and Jody instantly believes his kid brother and asks him what they have to do next. Their brotherly bond was quite solid, and that's why (SPOILER!) the "it was all a dream" ending didn't bother me - Mike was concocting this insane story in his mind as a way to cope with the fact that his brother was actually killed in a car wreck. So many dream endings seem to be a) a twist for the sake of being a twist, or b) a copout from a director who wanted to show cool shit but not take responsibility for it - but here it actually fits perfectly.

OR DOES IT? Right after we learn that Jody has been dead for a while, and not by the hand of some alien mortician, Mike goes upstairs and we see that the Tall Man is real. So was it a dream or not? It never really makes total sense, and the sequels are no help, but that's part of what makes the movie cool. Anyone who has ever dealt with grief can vouch for the mind playing tricks, making the bereaved remember things differently (the movie Premonition - yes, with Sandra Bullock - touched on similar areas), so you can even think of the whole movie as something that actually happened with only Jody's presence being imagined by Mike.

But the funny thing about Phantasm is that some of the more puzzling story points may not have been intentional. Legend has it that the first cut of the film ran around three hours, and Coscarelli obviously had to cut it down to something more manageable. I doubt this version will ever see the light of day - Coscarelli says that the version we all know and love is his preferred cut - but a few deleted scenes (some of which were incorporated into Phantasm IV as flashbacks) certainly suggest at a more fleshed out movie. Thus, it wouldn't surprise me at all if this three hour cut was nowhere near as confusing.

So yeah, it's not a perfect film - there are some groan-worthy mistakes (a corpse noticeably breathes at the top of a long shot - why didn't they just cut it?) and characters seen so briefly that some viewers can confuse them (Jody's girlfriend and the psychic's granddaughter, for example) - but its highs are far more frequent than relative lows, plus it scores major points for ambition anyway. In retrospect, its only problem is that Reggie Bannister doesn't get to do a whole lot, which might seem odd when you consider his significance in the sequels. He's basically just a third wheel, the Leo Getz of the movie, without any of the ass-kicking or lady action that would define his character in Phantasms II-IV. Bannister probably lucked out from the dumb re-casting in Phantasm II; with Jody gone (for now) and Mike recast, it almost seems like his role was bulked up to maintain continuity, and as it turns out he was pretty awesome (I think 16 year old me dreamed up a Reggie/Ash from Evil Dead scenario at one point).

It's actually kind of amazing that it got a sequel (from a major studio no less), plus two more entries and long gestating rumors of a fifth. It's such a weird concept with an even weirder execution, not to mention somewhat impenetrable to a newcomer - Saw is the only other horror franchise of note that more or less forces the viewer to watch every entry in sequence to understand what the hell is going on, and in this case even that might not help in the long run (where does that little kid from III go?). I can't imagine something like Phantasm ever finding a fairly wide audience even among the horror crowd in the modern era - fans couldn't even get past Adrien Brody's damn clothes in Splice because they were odd; how the hell are they going to get past shrinking corpses down so they can work as slaves in another universe? They'd be retreating to the safety of Paranormal Activity 4 before they got a chance to hear the amazing theme song (a staple on any Horror Themes compilation CD) one last time.

I was originally going to do a Minute by Minute of one of its sequels (probably III), but realized that I'd rather revisit the first again, and properly. I don't watch it that often - I think this was maybe my fourth time ever - because I like to go in with an appropriately hazy memory. That way, I can enjoy its strange pacing and low-key approach to big scares (the first sphere sequence doesn't have much buildup), not to mention its nutty story, and reward myself with a viewing experience that comes as close as I can get to a "first time" feeling, like when you wake up from a recurring nightmare that scared you all over again because you thought for sure that it was real this time. That's what Phantasm is like, and if you haven't seen it yet, I highly encourage you do so.