REVISITED: Phantasm (1979)
– By Antony Thomas
Nostalgia is a scampish dog that runs freely through our desultory thought offices; tipping over random memory tables and snuffling through the odd file of events to unearth the light of treasured days; documents unveiling snapshots of us that fade in time. I fidget through some of the execrable and formulaic time vampires pimped as ‘horror movies’ these days, and long for access to a bellwether that will lead me to a place where movie makers tapped into our thrill of the scare: the coda of fears that we as kids gasped to entwine.
When Don Coscarelli emerged from mountain cabin isolation in 1979, having worked for several weeks on the screenplay for a film of the afterlife, and came up with an unintelligible whigmaleerie; imagine how the meeting with potential studio investors went:
Money Bloke (*sucks on cigar & spits out a bit of tobacco leaf caught in teeth): OK Don, just cut to the goddamn chase will ya? Tell me what it is I’m investing in.
Don Coscarelli: In short, it’s an every day American story of an insignificant mid-west town’s funeral home harvesting & triturating the dead into miniature for interplanetary slavery; which includes violent hooded dwarves and amputated fingers that chrysalise into attack bats. The nucleus of the story is a giant shape-shifting lurch, who when kicking back from a busy day at the office morphing it up as a murdering nymphomaniac succubus, gets his rocks off on the fumes of ice cream vans (*flavour not specified). Plus there’s the flying brain-drilling mortuary orb. Yes, the silver orb. But hey, good beats bad, right? So instead of the usual home-spun team of overweening little college pricks battling this nemesis, we have a skinny teenager and two older stoner dudes with guitars who think they’re Gallagher & Lyle.
Money Bloke (*coughs on inhaled bolus of chewed cigar): Get the fuck outta my office. Weirdo. ….Sheila! Get me Eric Estrada on the phone. Pronto. I have a script for him about a vigilante android stunt cyclist.
Thankfully, Coscarelli still managed to obtain some investment for his warped brainchild, and armed with a modest $300k (a sizeable wedge going on the Panaflex unit), set up location in San Fernando Valley. The outpouring was ‘Phantasm’. Consider the premise of the movie: a teenager investigates unexplained deaths in his town and the weird happenings surrounding Morningside Funeral Home; and on entering the mausoleum, discovers that the dead are not what we think they are. Pretty standard fare for the paranoid 70’s, when small town nightmares diverged from a country in anarchy to anxiety of the bogeyman. That familiar and friendly sense of soft suburban post-Nixon America was there for exploitation by fear visionaries such as John Carpenter and George A. Romero, turning the fresh lawns of suburbia and sorority houses into hunting grounds for demented shapes of evil. In many ways Phantasm has the same ambience; and when we see tracking shots of Mike running down the long autumn street of his town, driven by a chiming electronic theme, we could easily be in Haddonfield.
And this is where the movie works: Coscarelli distils the excitement of dread as an adventure (consider Stand by Me, and the recent Netflix gem, Stranger Things). Otherwise, what is the bloody point? When I was a kid we used to believe that the local municipal crematorium with its huge putting green lawns and sweeping Gardens of Remembrance housed all sorts of vampiric ghouls and monsters; and the caretaker was none other than Count Dracula himself. On the cusp of summer’s dusk we would climb the gates to get in and explore the grounds; quaking with trepidation about being caught but also pushed to elation that here was a real life house of horror that we’d read in comics and viewed on picture cards and late-night TV movies, occupying the same hidden spaces under our beds or in the dark cracks of a slightly ajar wardrobe. Imagining every little sound or wind through trees or startled birds to be the undead coming to get us. The chimera of our own fantasies, taking shape within an imagined world.
Phantasm sheathes these fearful joys through an unnerving sense of disquiet, channelled via the arch hellion mastermind, The Tall Man. Angus Scrimm’s wondrous creation is a cartoon that looks as if it’s crawled out of a Scooby Doo test pressing that was rejected because it made small children soil themselves. He’s every bit as relevant as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees as an indelible demonic presence. And as a suburban bogeyman, he’s arguably more compelling and iconic. Why? Because kids are more scared of gaunt authoritative men in suits than overtly violent scyphers in dungarees and masks. The Thin man is a distillation of all those park-keepers and school caretakers or church laymen or loners on whom we jackie-knocked doors, taunted with crude names and ran like fuck if they caught us in places we shouldn’t be (“You! Come here, booooyyyy!!!”). My childhood memories captured numerous Tall Man-type scourges, who while simply employed to keep order (and us out of properties), to us were hideous ogres who would stockade us in their unlit oubliettes forever. But it’s not just sepia nostalgia playing a part here. Social networks have until recently agitated us with sightings of its own Scrimm-like apparition, The Slender Man.
Great horror is defined by uniqueness (The Exorcist), ability to be genre-defining (Halloween) or leave an indelible bruise on your psyche due to gulping on an unnerving lump of katzenjammer, without actually showing you anything at all (The Haunting, The Blair Witch Project). It is more rare for horror tableaux to be extraordinary on account of a sheer batshit spectacle (Carnival of Souls and The Wicker Man), and while Phantasm belongs on this latter shelf of absurdity; the allegory shapeshifts more times than The Tall Man himself. It may seem a mess; but it’s a glorious mess that underestimates Coscarelli’s gift of unlocking threads and enveloping an atmosphere that made 70’s American horror so great.
Unfortunately, the bee swarm of sequels that followed -like most continuations and remakes- strips away the component parts and dilutes the sense of what made the original so special. Phantasm is an uncommon movie made remarkable by an ordinary cast of unlikely heroes who couldn’t fight their way out of sock drawer. Do we really need to see a gun-toting ponytailed Reggie duking it out with an increasingly frail Tall Man in numerous reboots? It’s akin to watching the remains of a once-great rock act going through the motions tottering dangerously in spandex and stack heels; or a troupe of bloated arthritic wrestlers you once cheered on the TV as a child struggling to get up after a fall. Why the fuck do audiences have to be served answers to conundrums via sequels or changed endings to serve their moralist agenda? Why do they always have to be able to sleep at night in the knowledge that they are safe from the Demon? One can’t blame Coscarelli for trying to trouser back something from an idea that probably earned him pennies at the time; but my advice going forward is: burn everything. Start your own Private Year Zero with the original and best and bonkers horror movie of that era. What is reality? It doesn’t matter. For you the game is over.