Posthumous Reconfiguration: The Phantasm Series (Part One)
Mike, Reggie and Jodie. The Tall Man and his horde of cloaked, undead dwarves. A black Hemicuda sports car, a four barreled shotgun and flying silver spheres. These characters and accoutrements have become a part of me not only as a viewer, but as a person, in the way that only fiction can. A welcome infection of our internal reality. The Phantasm series is foundational to my love of horror films, for its true novelty and for its incorporation of both action and fantasy ingredients into the incomparable stew that it is. With the recent release of Phantasm Ravager, the franchise's fifth and reportedly final entry, a journey that began in 1979 is now coming to a close. Given how much these movies mean to me, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit them in sequence, flip through the album of images and impressions they left in my brain and on my soul...
It is the middle of the night. Laying on the grass amidst the tombstones in the empty Morningside graveyard is a man named Tommy and a female companion. Enraptured, and physically entangled, Tommy does not realize that he has been lured here. The woman is an illusory facade, which disappears to reveal the the severe, grimacing, imposing form of a man. A very tall man who suddenly raises a knife and takes Tommy's life. Perhaps he will take more even than that.
Throughout its known history, homo sapiens have responded to death with ritual. Well known are the elaborate organ removal techniques of the ancient Egyptians, the immolated wooden ships of the Norsemen, and the marching jazz processions of New Orleans. The typical American visitation involves the display of an embalmed body in a casket. When viewed objectively, without the acceptance that follows from tradition, the practice is fairly unsettling. Nothing seems natural about injecting a drained corpse with a chemical, adorning it with make up, and putting it on show. In Don Coscarelli's Phantasm, the actions of the funeral home take on a malevolence of epic proportions.
The dark, inexplicable secrets held by the Morningside mortuary are initially glimpsed by a young teenage boy named Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). Mike follows his big brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) everywhere, often doing so while hidden, observing at a distance. Having lost their parents only a couple of years prior, Jody is the only person that Mike has left, and he fears another abandonment. Mike views the conclusion of the funeral for Jody's friend Tommy through binoculars, and witnesses a tall, intimidating employee of the Morningside cemetery lift Tommy's coffin single handedly, and gingerly slide it into the back of a hearse. Jody, who helped carry the casket earlier, mentions that it must have weighed around five hundred pounds. Not long after, Mike is chased by a small, growling figure in the bushes near the graveyard. These moments are the foreshadowing of an encounter with otherworldly evil that will consume his destiny, and that of his loved ones.
Phantasm is aggressively strange, often in both content and in execution. The plot itself, concerning a powerful, evil mortuary worker known as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) hiding a portal to another world in a mausoleum, and transporting compressed reanimated corpses through it, is without precedent. The gleaming, reflective silver spheres, which serve The Tall Man, and rocket through the halls of the mausoleum, embed themselves in the skulls of their targets by way of sharp blades, and then eject blood in great, arcing streams through a retractable drill, are alone more inventive than than an entire movie of gimmicks. A physically evolving severed finger and a horde of vicious dwarven ghouls are also amongst the unholy menagerie. The film perfectly manages the incomparable balance between an avant garde examination of death and drive-in horror thrills.
Also vital to the film's maverick identity is its action, as seen in an exhilarating, gunfire sprinkled car chase between Jody's Hemi 'Cuda and a seemingly driverless hearse. Most other films, genre or otherwise, begin to seem inexcusably lazy by comparison. Instead of utilizing vampires, ghosts, or any other established horror archetypes or concepts, Coscarelli did the hard work of inventing from scratch every single element, and mixing in other genres while he was at it. Following his own distinct vision, he created an absolutely masterful classic of horror and a work of mind boggling individuality.
Photographed by Coscarelli himself, the film more closely approximates the experience of having a nightmare, of being in one, than any film I've ever seen. An unceasing series of increasingly terrifying, surreal events, barely held together within the vague borders of a fragile reality. A reality gradually succumbing to a terrible fate. Editing and framing isolate characters from one another, even when they are in conversation. Everyone is unmoored, drifting alone in darkness. A continuous presence of eerie danger is woven by sounds of the outdoors long after sunset. Banshee wind, crickets and the worrying rustle of leaves dig up primal unease about what might be lurking in the night. Whatever amorphous shapes our subconscious might attribute to that unknown danger, Phantasm matches blow for blow.
For all of its strangeness, Phantasm can be elegantly summarized as the tortured dreams of a teenage boy struggling with overpowering grief, and the troubling, blunt truth of mortality. Here the nightmare bleeds into reality, until the two are indistinguishable. All films are dreams of a sort. This is one best experienced awake, from the distance and safety afforded to mere viewers, well beyond the reach of The Tall Man. Or so we might hope.