January 13, 2014

Movie Review: Phantasm

In the late 1970's the slasher film was getting ready to explode, riding on the shoulders of movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and the genre defining Halloween. There was also the growing zombie world with Dawn of the Dead, the man versus nature of Jaws, and sci-fi monsters of Alien. Then there was Phantasm, released in 1979 and not really being like anything that had come before it. While it may not be a personal favorite, it is, indeed an original horror film made on a tight budget that has withstood the test of time, has grown on me, and is still straight up creepy.

"If this one doesn't scare you.... You're already dead."

Phantasm was made by a young filmmaker named Don Coscarelli who wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited the film. He had previously made a couple of family oriented films, the first of which was financed by his father. Well, following their very modest success, Coscarelli turned his eyes towards his real love, horror, and conceived of the nightmarish world of Phantasm. It is a film, which would spawn three sequels over a span of nearly twenty years, spreading an ever expanding atmosphere of dread and doom.

I mentioned earlier that this movie was never a favorite of mine. It isn't. I will say that it has grown higher in estimation with each successive viewing. It is a slow burn sort of film that feels like a unique combination of American film making and European (specifically Italian) style. There really is not a whole heck of a lot that happens. It is a movie where you have to accept a lot and fill in the blanks. I feel it is purposefully left obtuse, forcing you to try and make sense of it. Then again, oftentimes reality does not make sense, and since we are not given an omniscient viewpoint, our supply of information is left lacking.

As Phantasm opens, we are in a cemetery where a couple are enjoying each others company while surrounded by the dead. The woman, referred to as the Lady in Lavender, pulls out a knife and plunges it into his chest. Lights flash and the woman's face turns into that of a man, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). The next scene is the man's funeral and we are introduced to the movie's heroes. There is Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Looking on from the distance is our main character, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin).

While Jody and Reggie mourn, Mike watches from a distance and lingers after everyone else has left. If he did not do this, we would not have had the movie. You see, Mike witnesses the Tall Man pick up the casket, by himself, and putting it into the hearse. No mere man should be able to do that and it sticks with Mike to the point that he has to go back and look around.

What follows is a cat and mouse duel as Mike discovers that the Tall Man is not exactly human, encountering his evil dwarf minions, and trying to convince Jody and Reggie that something evil is going on at the mortuary. While Mike freaks out about this stuff, he has certainly caught the eye of the Tall Man and he is out to get the youngster. It is interesting as the movie does not really set them up as adversaries, it just happens that Mike stumbled upon his plot and the Tall Man is trying to eliminate the nuisance he has become. While the Tall Man is clearly not a nice fellow, he does not seem to be one to engage directly unless he needs to.

Don Coscarelli has said this movie is about American death, the way in which people die and we shuffle them to the back, keeping it quiet and having the work done by a mortician. The Tall Man, who seems to be some manner of interdimensional being, has found a way to use that to his advantage. While we do learn of what he is doing, why is something completely different and left completely unexplained. It is a mixture of genius and annoyance. What is doing with them?

It gets to the end, our trio of heroes try to figure out a way to stop the Tall Man and it appears they may have done the trick, but at what cost? It is a climax that is so nebulous that it does not really make any sort of narrative sense. Dead characters are alive, living characters are dead, what the heck happened? If you take the facts that are presented in the film, I do not think there really is any way of reconciling all that happens. This is odd considering how little actually takes place.

Now, I have done a little bit of research (not a lot) as to what happens at the end and there are a few different theories as to what happened. The conceit that you have to know why it happened is one that could ultimately damage the terror induced by the unknowing, so I would recommend thinking about it and/or research it at your own risk. I will say the theory I liked the best does not involve dreams, but a moment where the fabric of time and space gets disrupted. I am not going to say where, but it is a theory that makes sense to me and seems to fit the overall tone.

Phantasm is a movie that relies heavily on atmosphere. This movie is creepy, weird, bizarre, and definitely stands apart. I can honestly say I do not think I have seen another movie quite like it. It is a movie that gnaws at your brain as it toys with reality. It defies explanation, things happen and you have to accept them. The great thing is that it works.

The narrative is left for the audience to complete, no spoon feeding here, it successfully deals with concepts of death, loss, and abandonment from the perspective of a young person. It could certainly be viewed as a tale of someone dealing with post traumatic stress disorder with the nightmare of the Tall Man being his method of attempting to come to grips with reality. The nightmare theory does not really explain the film, but you could be convinced it works. It all depends on how you want to view the actions.

I have read how some folks do not think the movie has aged that well. I disagree, with the obvious exception of some clothing and hairstyles it holds up very well. The themes are still appropriate, the eerieness still exists, the Hemicuda is still an awesome car, and I am still creeped out by the Tall Man. It most certainly holds up.

I also have to mention that the score is fantastic. The Phantasm theme is one for the ages, whenever it kicks in it is like a shot of adrenaline. It also helps feed the Italian feel of the production, while it is distinctly American, it seems, to me, to have the fingerprints of Goblin and Fabio Frizzi throughout.

In closing, Don Coscarelli has crafted a fantastic horror film that stands to this day and will continue to create discussion as to what happened and why, not to mention continuing to generally creep people out. There is a reason why people still talk about this movie, it's a good one. Even as I write this, I am liking it more and more.

Highly Recommended.

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