It’s been a while since I’ve done a Serious About Series feature, but they’ve always been fun favorites of mine. They usually get me outside of the typical auteur- and art-heavy worlds of my usual long-running articles, and they often delve into the weirder, more obscure nooks of franchise filmmaking. So when the time came that I ran out of Directed Viewing and I had about a month free to do whatever, I decided it was time.
It’s a month late to be super relevant, but one of the things I have always most enjoyed doing with Serious About Series is horror film franchises. If I had the time or energy to run more articles, I’d love to do these on the regular, delving into a whole host of insane sequels and crap direct-to-DVD spin offs. Alas, I don’t, but with the opportunity afforded me I figured it was time to tackle my favorite horror franchise of all time. What classic could that possibly be, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you! As you might have guessed from the title of this article, it’s Phantasm!
Why Phantasm? Well, that’s primarily what this is going to be about, as I think that on the face of it Phantasm and its three sequels seem like weird choices for my favorite horror franchise. But, unlike most franchises, this series is one that never stopped trying to do new things, never deviated from being weird and going for its initial (insane) premise, and always thrived under the guidance of the same creative vision that kept it alive for the two decades the franchise spans in time between releases. So let’s hop aboard this nightmare train bound for weirdness, death spheres, and one very Tall Man.
To try to explain the plot of Phantasm to someone who hasn’t seen it would be to expose its insanity but none of its charm. So let’s set this up. In 1979 writer/director/producer/all around cult cinematic renaissance man Don Coscarelli created a horror movie unlike most any other that had come out of the United States. Not the world, but definitely the US, because unlike most horror movies, Phantasm seemed almost totally disinterested in making sense. Scenes went on too long, moments were stolen from other things, characters drifted through a world that seemed barely connected to reality, cause and effect were broken apart. It was a world where things just seemed to happen for no reason.
There’s a name for that, and it’s called giallo. The infamous Italian horror sub-genre is the perfect descriptor for Phantasm’s dream logic and nightmare reality. Sure, it’s not Italian, but it earns the pedigree as one of, if not the only, American giallo films handily through a combination of bewildering plot choices, general narrative weirdness, and deliberate thematic ambiguity that pushes it far beyond what one might expect out of a movie with as simple (ha!) a premise as this one.
The movie starts with a murder. A young man and a mysterious woman are making out in a cemetery when suddenly she transforms into a creepy old man and stabs him. The friends of this guy, our heroes, stand around his casket at the funeral and talk about how apparently these stab wounds were ruled as a suicide. These people are as follows: 24 year old Jody (Bill Thornbury), 12 year old Mike (Michael Baldwin), and their already balding, ponytailed friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Jody is looking after the shiftless, emotionally troubled Mike after their parents died in a car accident, and Reggie mostly just hangs out, playing guitar and selling ice cream from his strangely old fashioned ice cream truck.
Mike, who lingers around the cemetery because he’s a creepy kid (complete with an outfit comprised of three shades of denim: bellbottoms, shirt, and jacket), sees that after the funeral a myserious Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) shows up and raises the casket back out of the ground, picking up a casket that took six men to lift and dropping it into the hearse for what seem like nefarious purposes. He decides to go and investigate, breaking into the mortuary/mausoleum, and there he discovers some strange hooded dwarvish figures that chase him out of the mortuary. Something is amiss, what with the body stealing and creepy Jawas, but what is he going to do about it?
Mike decides to go to a fortune teller, a gypsy woman who apparently only communicates through telepathy with her daughter, a girl who is set up to be a love interest but never really goes anywhere. Either way, they decide to treat Mike to a reenactment of Dune as a mysterious black box materializes in front of him and he’s told to put his hand into it. He does, because of course he does, and is subjected to intense pain as the girl earnestly tells him “Fear is the killer.” I’m pretty sure they owe Frank Herbert money, but this is the epitome of a no-budget movie, so I’m pretty sure a copy of Dune would cost as much as some of the sets. 1979 was a heady time for everyone, as evidenced by the feathered hair and shag carpet everywhere.
Eventually Mike catches the attention of the Tall Man, who spends his time sending his diminuitive minions out to terrorize Mike while he generally skulks about town. Jody and Reggie get involved, and soon everyone discovers much to their horror that the dwarves that have been following them are actually the corpses of the recently dead, reanimated and somehow shrunk by an unknown process. Confused, horrified, and ready to shoot the hell out of the Tall Man, all three of them decide to storm the mortuary/mausoleum and put an end to the Tall Man’s reign of terror once and for all. Or at least, that’s the intention. Things don’t exactly go to plan, as the Tall Man has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.
The reveal at the end is one of the more baffling plot developments, something that we’ll find is almost never mentioned again. The Tall Man, we discover, is shrinking and reanimating corpses in order to ship them through a dimensional portal through space to a dusty, gravity-heavy planet, where they’re used as slave labor. Apparently he’s some sort of alien, then, right? And his plan, while not exactly kosher, is far from an evil death to the world sort of plan. Hell, who knows, maybe the bodies don’t even reanimate with memories of their former selves? (We find out later that isn’t the case, exactly, but for now let’s play along.) In that case, how is the Tall Man any different than donating your body to science? People give him a lot of shit, this Tall Man, and he’s just trying to extend the usefulness of humanity.
But in reality by the time you get to the dimensional portal and space slavery twists, it doesn’t even seem that weird. The whole movie unfolds with a dream logic that seems at times to veer into the unintentionally haphazard. I don’t think it is, as all the movies bear this cultivated weirdness that is more than lack of talent, but certainly this movie spends most of its time not making sense more than it does having a plot. Like during one particular scene where a severed finger Mike takes off of the maimed Tall Man turns into a giant fly that they try to kill with outright slapstick hijinks that wouldn’t be out of place in a Raimi film.
There’s just something to Phantasm that seems deliberately off, a weirdness that sets an indelible atmosphere that probably is what caused it to be remembered enough to get another film made. In fact, it took a whole decade for Phantasm II to happen, at which point I can only imagine the first one had already achieved some sort of cult status in a suddenly VHS-heavy world. It is very much a film nerd home video type of cult movie, something to be shown to friends and admired and laughed with (not at, I don’t think, aside from some ridiculously bad acting on the part of the obviously amateur leads), the kind of movie that probably never would exist today, but encapsulates a beautiful crossroads of culture and genre in horror movie history.
Gleaming Balls of Death
One of the most significant elements of the Phantasm movies is the silver spheres that float around murdering people. That said, given their ubiquitousness in advertising and in the later films, there’s only one here and it only gets one real moment to shine. But apparently that was enough to propel it into cult history.
Late in the film, when everyone’s breaking into the mortuary and blowing away the evil Jawas, the silver ball shows up in one scene, flying around the corner and popping out its signature dual blades. Our hero narrowly avoids getting skewered by ducking at just the right time, but the sphere finds a target in the evil henchman just behind, who finds the ball buried against his forehead. Before he can pull it out, the thing sprouts a small corkscrew, which it uses to burrow into his forehead, causing a veritable geyser of very waxy looking blood to erupt out of the back of the sphere. He falls to the ground, twitching, a puddle of piss forming around him, as the sphere spurts out the entirety of his blood. And thus is cinematic legend born, I guess.
The Reggie Factor
Let’s talk about Reggie, who in this movie plays little more than an amusingly over-specific sidekick. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Reggie is going to be the hero of most of the later films, something that isn’t even hinted at here. But Reggie, along with Ashley Williams, is maybe my favorite horror movie hero, a man who defines trend-setting if your trend is fatal lameness, a man who wears a leather sweater over a white uniform and a bow tie. Who carries an acoustic guitar for jam sessions in his ice cream truck. Who manages to underreact to everything and bumble his way through life.
I don’t know how Reggie became the guy, outside of he’s got amazing comic non-timing, but in this first movie he honestly just looks dazed most of the time. It’s not bad, but it’s hardly noteworthy, unfortunately. I wonder if this is what the real Reggie, the actor, was like? He reeks of being a barely fictionalized account of the director’s buddy, too weird to be fictional and too natural for an actor of his (lack of) stature. Nobody rocks a balding ponytail so well, and for that, Reggie, we salute you.
At the end of the movie the mortuary gets blown up (more specifically dimensionally phase shifted, but whatever) and Reggie gets murdered, only for Jody and Mike to trick the Tall Man into heading to an abandoned mine shaft where they lead him over a hole that he falls into, much like Wile E Coyote, before they dump obviously foam rocks on top of him. But then, in that moment of triumph, Mike wakes up! Apparently the whole experience was a dream, from the very beginning of the movie.
You see, Mike had constructed this elaborate horror fantasy as a way of dealing with Jody’s death by car wreck at some point before the film began, trying to fantasize his brother back to life. In reality, he’s being taken care of by Reggie, who suggests they grab their stuff and ride out of town to try to clear their collective heads for a few weeks. Mike, who apparently doesn’t go to school or have actual adults looking after him, jumps on this idea and heads up to his room. Only to discover…
THE TALL MAN! He’s not only real, but he’s pissed, offering up the now-iconic “Boooooooy!” as he glares menacingly at Mike right before a bunch of hands reach through his mirror and pull him into blackness. Crash to black. Roll credits. What a bummer ending! If Mike’s dead, obviously they can’t make more of them, right? Well, there’s where you’d be wrong, because horror movie logic. Come back next time for the further adventures of Mike, Reggie, The Tall Man, Jawas, shiny balls of death, and Reggie’s ponytail. It’s even more zany than the first!