Exhuming Phantasm, Part 1

by Arthur B

The original Phantasm from 1979 remains one of the most startlingly original horror movies of all time.
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Before he landed a surprise hit with Bubba Ho-Tep, Don Coscarelli was mostly known to horror fans as the mastermind behind the Phantasm series. With the original film coming out in 1979 and various sequels emerging in 1988, 1994, and 1998, for well over a decade the final film in the series languished in development limbo as Coscarelli and his associates tried in vain to find funding for it.

Finally, to everyone's surprise and joy, a fifth movie was completed in 2014 and emerged in 2016, with Coscarelli taking 2015 to supervise a 4K remastering of the original Phantasm. (Arrow Video's Phantasm boxed set lavishly presents all five films plus numerous bonus features on Blu-Ray.) The time's never been better to both revisit the classic original and its sequels and to see if the fifth movie represents a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

Phantasm


We open with the death of a certain Tommy (Bill Cone) during a rendezvous with a mysterious woman (Kathy Lester) in the graveyard at the Morningside funeral home. The next thing we know, biker dude Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury) and his ice-cream van driving best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) are exchanging commiserations at Morningside as they await Tommy’s funeral. Jody’s left his little brother Mike (Michael Baldwin) at home because he doesn’t want to distress him unduly - not least because there’s already been enough death in the kid’s life, with their parents having died simultaneously two years ago and been interred at Morningside themselves - but Mike decides to come along anyway and watch from afar.

Both Jody and Mike hear strange noises on the grounds of the funeral home, and whilst he’s observing the funeral from the bushes Mike sees the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the mysterious owner of Morningside, picking up Tommy’s coffin and taking it away under one arm - as though it were light as a feather! A visit to a psychic friend of his and a series of disturbing experiences in Morningside itself convinces Mike that something’s up, and soon he’s got grotesquely compelling evidence to bring Jody and Reg onside - leaving the three of them determined to get to the bottom of what the Tall Man is doing with all of those corpses. The answer involves demented dream sequences, unnaturally strong dwarves, and the iconic flying balls that patrol Morningside at night.

Phantasm is something unique, in that whilst both supernatural horror and psychological horror have a long story in the cinema, it’s not often that a movie is quite so effective both at blurring the lines between the two and in creating such a unique supernatural threat. Over the course of the entire film, for instance, it’s made clear that Mike is extremely distressed about the possibility of Jody going back on the road and leaving him alone again, and really doesn’t want Jody to go. This makes a certain plot twist at the end work when otherwise it would seem like it came completely out of the blue; the film as a whole keeps returning over and over again to the theme of bereavement, playing upon the idea over and over again just as when you’re actually bereaved the absence of your lost loved one keeps coming back to you over and over again at the strangest moments.

As well as the bereavement angle, there’s also a coming-of-age aspect to this, where Mike’s habit of following Jody often leaving him a voyeuristic observer lurking at the periphery of an adult world which in a short span of time he’ll have full access to, and the fascination he shows for it is tempered by resentment for the way it puts a barrier between him and Jody. The main reason this works is that Thornbury and Baldwin have a great onscreen chemistry together; they’re both really good at making the fraternal relationship seem convincing. We don’t see a whole lot of what Mike, Jody, and Reggie get up to when they aren’t trespassing in funeral homes in search of mutant dwarves, but we still get a really vivid sense of how they relate to each other and how their personalities play off each other.

(Subsequent movies in the series would make extensive use of footage shot during the filming of this one but left on the cutting room floor, which would include more of the trio hanging out together, so perhaps here we’re seeing the benefit of them working through those scenes - even though they weren’t used in the final cut, they informed Thornbury, Baldwin, and Bannister’s performances enough to be worth doing anyway just to get that sense of a well-established relationship really bedded in.)

Coscarelli isn’t afraid to get a little nonlinear in his presentation - for example, taking Mike’s visit to the medium as an opportunity to splice in a few scenes of past events out of order (as well as using it to throw in a fun little Dune reference). What’s more, over the course of the film the story incorporates more and more in the way of dream logic, with Mike and Jody spontaneously running around and doing stuff in response to sudden moods or strange visions more and more over the course of the story.

The film has a sense of the ridiculous that’s often missing from more po-faced horror films but is very useful for making the grotesque action more palatable - in particular, the mechanism by which the spheres track down and kill their victims manages to be both horrible and ridiculous at the same time, and the chaos wrought by some of the Tall Man’s severed fingers is on the one hand entertaining in a slapstick way and on the other hand important for getting across the implication that the Tall Man isn’t even remotely human.

This comical streak extends to the pals’ investigation of Morningside, which is entertainingly haphazard. The enigma before them is so bizarre that the trio end up blundering about trying things speculatively just to see what would happen, and the movie is quite good at prompting them to do stupid things in such a way that it doesn’t make them look actually stupid - it’s just that there don’t seem to be any clever options on the table. This works mainly because the situation they are investigating is so weird, and they are out of their depth and short of facts to such a great extent, that it makes complete sense that they can’t really come up with better ideas than the ones they do come up with. Matters come to a head before the trio really have a good handle on exactly what is happening, and as far as the Tall Man and the forces at his command go, we aren’t given many answers during the movie, but we are given a cogent idea of what the core goal of his activities are - and it’s a doozy.

The recent restoration overseen by Coscarelli and made available on the Arrow Video boxed set really helps the movie. Sure, the limitations of some of the special effects are evident, but that’s always been the case, and little details are brought out which were harder to appreciate before. (In particular, the dating on some headstones helps to further contextualise the twist ending.) Phantasm has dated in other ways as well - the whole thing with the Tall Man transforming into a sexy woman to lure people to their deaths doesn’t seem intended as an overtly transphobic or misogynistic statement, but it can certainly come across that way, and it’s fortunate that it’s not that prominent of a plot point and is more or less absent from the subsequent movies.

Still, it remains the strongest and purest movie in the series; subsequent entries found themselves having to balance various competing forces, as budgetary limitations, compromises with studios, and a tendency to follow the established formula beyond the point when it necessarily made sense to do so dragged them in this direction and that. Moreover, it remains one of the few horror movies out there which, whilst treading on familiar territory (what could be more classically gothic than a funeral home and graveyard?), ends up going to somewhere which is truly and distinctly original.
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at 05:36 on 2017-11-20
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