Phantasm (1979)

This one is a long time coming…

Welcome to this week’s B-Movie Enema. I’ve long wanted to do something with the Phantasm series. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t at least like a lot of the visuals and atmosphere of this first film from 1979. However, where the real analytical gold is in the Phantasm hills come in the sequels. In order to get there, I need to start from the beginning.

This series is the brainchild of filmmaker Don Coscarelli. Coscarelli made this on a small budget that was locally raised. The movie would star mostly local acting amateurs at the time – with some exceptions. Due to the low budget and limited availabilities of the cast and crew, Coscarelli spent almost a year filming on long days on weekends. The finished product would be an instant cult classic.

Some of the influences that came along for Coscarelli are fairly clear. The story as a whole is mostly inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. However, there is definitely some Invaders of Mars in there with young Mike witnessing something odd but unable to convince the adults around him. Coscarelli’s third inspiration is Dario Argento’s Suspiria where the atmosphere and the lack of actual explanations for everything that happened takes a back seat to visual style and atmosphere. Suspiria’s inspiration is also felt with Mike Oldfield being influenced by Goblin for the Phantasm score. Phantasm is a great example of how borrowing from those influences and building something mostly from pastiche can create something really good and still feel original.

We’ll get more into the themes of this movie as we move through the narrative (if the plot can be even called that). I will say that this movie did not go unnoticed as an independent horror film. Critics were quick to defend the style of the movie and its pacing. In addition to that, some appreciated the mix of humor and horror as well. This might be one of the first real examples of a true horror movie that did use comedy to help break tension. There were a few detractors. Some still gave largely negative reviews while still appreciating some of the technical stuff. However, there were a few who thought this was incompetent and, in one case, “juvenile malarkey.”

Today, people whistle a different tune. Upon reappraisal, Phantasm is considered one of the most original horror films ever made, despite its influences. The Tall Man, played by the great Angus Scrimm, became an icon in the 80s and 90s with other contemporary modern monsters like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Kruger. It led to four more films in the series. Coscarelli would direct the first three sequels before handing the fifth film off to David Hartman. The sequels follow a lot of the bizarreness and difficulty to understand every theme presented making for a franchise that is truly unique.

The sequels will be covered in August, so look for that.

Phantasm waits no time creating a surreal experience. The opening scene happens after the title pulsates its way onto the screen with a bizarre harmonic hum. Things open on an image of Morningside Cemetery’s funeral home and mortuary. The first frame of the narrative is already providing a hell of a lot of thematic importance. Why is that? Well, cemeteries and funeral homes are very scary places – especially to younger people. It represents mortality, but also, more importantly for this movie, loss. These are things that are difficult for children to embrace. We will most definitely dig deeper into how I see that theme represented.

There is also another concept here that happens. Cemeteries are scary enough to create nightmares. Nightmares and dreamscapes are key to this story’s themes as well. How dreams and nightmares can quickly shift perceptions and concepts with little or no warning will literally happen in this opening scene as well when a character who will be discussed often throughout the movie, but only seen here and sort of later, Tommy, is making love with a hot-to-trot blonde in a purple dress. She produces a dagger and, after they finish sexing each other, she stabs Tommy to death. In an instant she reveals her true identity – The Tall Man, the mortician at Morningside.

It’s said that Tommy killed himself that night, and his friends Jody and Reggie, members of a band they had with Tommy, talk at the cemetery. Jody, played by Bill Thornbury (who we saw waaaay back in Summer School Teachers), goes inside the mortuary to visit his dead parents. The inside of the mortuary is kind of iconic to me. I’ve never been inside one, but that’s probably because of this movie. However, is this what it looks like? All white, marble, starkly offset with red drapes and spooky busts? If so, I don’t want to go inside one.

While inside here, Jody hears the skittering of some sort of animal, but he never sees anything. Jody tries finding the source of the weird sounds, leading him deeper into the mortuary. He is startled when the Tall Man puts his hand on his shoulder and tells him the services for Tommy are about to begin.

Speaking of those weird skittering creatures, Outside, in the graveyard, Jody’s 13-year old kid brother, Mike (Michael Baldwin), sees little guys in hooded robes, almost like Jawas. Yes, this movie was accused of ripping off Star Wars, but I believe this film was in production around the time it was getting rolled out to theaters. It was highly unlikely that these little minions of the Tall Man could have been directly lifted by Coscarelli from Star Wars. Anyway, Mike is motorbiking around the graveyard for a very specific reason. He’s following Mike.

This brings up another important piece of exposition. While Reggie and Jody visit the open casket of Tommy, it’s brought up that it was good that Jody didn’t bring Mike. Jody agrees. He said that after their parents’ funeral, and seeing them in coffins, Mike had nightmares for weeks.

Outside, Mike spies on the proceedings with binoculars. He watches as Tommy’s casket is brought from the hearse to the gravesite. The six men, his brother and Reggie included, seem to struggle a little bit with the weight. After the mourners leave, Mike watches something peculiar take place.

Mike decides to stop by a local palm reader/creepy old lady. This woman is wheelchair-bound, seems to be blind, and wears black lace as if she’s in perpetual mourning. She also seems to telepathically communicate with her spooky, but cute, granddaughter.

Mike is there seeking advice. He overheard Jody talk about leaving town. Jody was talking to an old school friend back in town for Tommy’s funeral. Jody is itching to get out of this small town. His parents are dead and now one of his best friends was just buried. Jody’s friend, Toby, hit it right on the head saying that this town is starting to get to Jody with all that’s happened. He figures Mike is 13 now and can finish school while living with their aunt. He mentions that Mike is constantly following him as if he knows Jody’s going to leave. We see Jody take off on his bike to either get a little ride in or go somewhere, and Mike is desperately running after him but unable to keep up.

He also tells the old lady and her spooky granddaughter what he saw with the Tall Man picking up the casket with Tommy inside all by himself. While he took off to get out there, he has an accident and falls off his motorbike – an accident caused by the Tall Man. This leads to the old lady to make a black box appear on the table in front of Mike. The granddaughter tells him to put his hand in the box. The box practically attacks him. If he doesn’t fear, he is able to release his hand.

That’s the key he needs to remember – fear is the killer.

The granddaughter is still concerned about what she heard about the Tall Man picking up that casket. She goes to Morningside to investigate. Inside the mortuary, the girl finds a door with an otherworldly hum on the other side of it. She opens the door and sees a bright glow. The scene cuts back to the exterior of the mortuary and we hear her scream. Was the spooky chick killed? Did she just scream and try to run away? That’s one of the mysteries of the movie. It’s more then likely she did die because she could have told Mike about the place and, well, the rest of the movie wouldn’t have happened.

To be completely transparent with you all, this viewing was the first time I actually DID learn what became of the girl – we’ll get to that in the final act.

That night, Jody picks up the purple dress blonde that Tommy hung out with. However, Mike is following. It’s pretty lucky he did. While, yeah, he cock blocks his big bro, it’s because Mike gets spooked by the little dwarves – which he later tells Jody was “little, brown, and low to the ground”. He runs by screaming before Lady Tall Man could kill Jody.

Jody doesn’t believe Mike saw anything other than a gopher in heat or hear anything other than the wind. Mike sends Jody home and goes back to look for the blonde he was with, but she’s nowhere to be found. That night, Mike has a nightmare.

This basically ends the first act of the movie. As it stands right now, it’s a pretty straightforward movie. There’s a weird guy in the Morningside Cemetery that seems to have a pretty mean disposition, a lot of strength, and has little goblins or something that serve him. He poses as a woman sometimes to lure men to their deaths.

We also have the tale of two brothers. The younger brother, Mike, is clinging onto the older brother, Jody. Jody, who has had to deal with burying not only the brothers’ parents but one of his best friends, is thinking about leaving town. This is utterly unacceptable to Mike. These ideas are very clearly stated. It’s also very clearly showing that Mike has separation anxiety that probably stems from the loss of his parents. We’ll get more into that later.

From just one act of the movie being completed, is this a good horror movie? Yes. It’s got an atmosphere and a killer soundtrack that really builds to scary stuff. The Tall Man is an imposing figure. There’s a whole lot more going on here than spooks and ghouls and stalker killers. There is a undeniable style in this movie that makes it unique from so many other late 70s horror films. It’s shot differently. It’s written far deeper. It’s got a score that is up there with the greats happening in Italy during the era.

What makes this movie so much deeper is how it plays with what it wants to be in the course of the three acts. The first one is a family drama as we are learning the dynamics of Jody and Mike. One wants to seek more. The other desperately clutching to what he has. It’s heavy with that atmosphere of this small town that feels, in some ways, like a place that will inevitably die much like the citizens do. We don’t see many other kids the same age as Mike. We don’t get any sense this is a town that people want to stay in for very long.

As we move into this second act, that’s when we see Phantasm take on a little bit more of a traditional horror film.

For the first time since seeing The Tall Man through the binoculars after Tommy’s funeral, Mike sees the imposing character striding down Main Street in front of stores. While ice cream man Reggie is loading some frozen treats into the back of his truck, Mike notices that the extreme cold seems to have an effect on him. It forces him to stop and tense up as if he’s literally freezing. After Reggie shuts the door, he carries on.

Later that night, Mike is working on Jody’s Barracuda. While he’s under the car’s chassis, he hears the sound of one or more dwarves scurrying around. They start rocking the car with him under it. Now… Barracudas are pretty damn low to the ground. This could be real bad. They nearly pin him under the car until Jody returns. Jody still dismisses that there is anything to what Mike tells him.

So, Mike decides to do maybe the worst thing – go to Morningside by himself in the middle of the night.

It’s in this scene that Phantasm goes from being an interesting family drama with a supernatural horror involved to becoming iconic. Mike breaks into the basement of the mortuary and starts to take a peek around. A caretaker is also in the building and it seems as though he knows Mike is hiding in a coffin, but gets called away by the Tall Man. Mike wanders around in the hallways and comes face to, uh, face with the Tall Man’s most deadly of weapons… the silver balls with some pretty nasty teeth and a drill for skull drillin’.

That poor caretaker dude even pisses himself after getting his brain drilled.

Mike takes off running away from the Tall Man and is able to lock himself into the basement he came in from again. The Tall Man isn’t that easily escaped, though. Mike might have locked the door, but the Tall Man got his hand in there first. Mike slices off the fingers and sees that the creepy guy bleeds yellow.

And his fingers continue to move after they’ve been severed.

Mike does what any person trying to plead his case about weird shit going on and takes one of the Tall Man’s fingers with him. He barely escapes some of the dwarves as he crawls out of the basement and runs all the way home. The next morning, Mike is on the stairs with a pump action shotgun and a little box that 1) has the Tall Man’s finger in it that 2) is bouncing around like crazy.

Mike wakes up to Jody unloading the shotgun. Jody gets a look at the finger in the box and suddenly believes everything Mike’s been telling him. That’s when Mike tells him about what he saw the day of Tommy’s funeral. Jody decides they need to go talk to the sheriff. He has Mike get his evidence from his room to take to the authorities.

Because this is only the beginning of this incredibly strange series of movies, it’s best for you to realize now that the evidence Mike has is no longer a finger.

Yeah. That finger has gone from an old man’s finger in mustard to a fuzzy bug full of teeth and rage. I love how Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury sell the hell out of the struggle with this bug as it flies around while they have it caught in their hands and a shirt. It’s brilliant. I also love how they cram it down the garbage disposal to kill, but that doesn’t work. It takes two attempts down the drain before it dies. But not before a happy go lucky Reggie comes over to hang out before the kids get out of school and the ice cream biz goes bonkers.

It’s just a wonderful scene.

Jody decides he’s gonna go down to Morningside to take a look around. He leaves Mike behind with a shotgun and these instructions:

  1. You don’t aim the gun at a man unless you intend to shoot him.
  2. You don’t shoot a man unless you intend to kill him.

Pretty sound advice when dealing with monsters. Mike goes into the basement of the mortuary and is attacked by a dwarf. He is able to get the little guy off him by shooting him, but it takes several shots for him to be satisfied that the little bugger is down for good. As he runs away from the cemetery, he’s chased by the hearse. The hearse, as far as he can tell, is being driven by no one. Mike saves him by bringing the ‘Cuda. They get chased by the hearse. When they finally force the vehicle to crash, they go back to investigate. The brothers discover that the hearse wasn’t driving itself, it was being driven by a dwarf that has been run through by the branch of a tree. When Jody pulls back the dwarf’s hood, they see that it’s Tommy.

Jody calls Reggie and has him bring his truck to store the guy in. They learn that “Tommy” is only three feet long, but still weighs about 200 pounds. Back at the house, the three guys try to figure out what the deal is. Why would they take a full sized dead person and crush him down to half sized? Mike has a very important question – what about mom and dad? They are there too. Jody doesn’t want either of them to think about that.

Reggie wants go up to Morningside and grab that Tall Man and “stomp the shit out of him until he gives some answers.” If he doesn’t, well, they’ll “drive a stake right through that mother’s heart!”

Jody brings everything back down to earth and tells Reggie to drop Mike off at this antique shop that that these two babes run. Jody and Reggie will handle all this. Mike is NOT to argue about this arrangement and he will definitely not follow them. Well… That is until he finds an old timey picture of one of the earliest morticians at Morningside.

This moment will later be sort of expanded on in a sequel down the line. However, this eerie image of the Tall Man operating a horse and buggy outside the Morningside Mortuary reveals that the Tall Man might be supernatural, or otherworldly, or immortal. Pick whichever one you want as it pertains to this movie alone.

It does tell Mike that he needs to help Jody because things are totally fucked up in this town. He demands to be taken home. Meanwhile, Reggie is driving along with the dead Tommy in the back of his ice cream truck. But Tommy isn’t so dead after all. We’ll come back around to Reggie in a bit.

This ends the second act of the movie. Like I said, this is a bit more of a typical horror movie. Maybe it even draws a little bit from more classic horror ideas like little zombies and a ghoul who is using the bodies of the dead to do whatever he is doing. It’s definitely starting to play up to the supernatural because of the dwarves being resurrected people and the Tall Man likely being something of an immortal. We just don’t know the actual reason for any of this.

To be fair, I’m not sure we ever really, definitively learn of the reason for the Tall Man’s shenanigans.

It is this third act when things really take a turn before it’s over. Even Jody begins having nightmares about the Tall Man and his little goons. While on his way back home, Mike and the two girls who are supposed to be looking after him find Reggie’s truck turned over in the road and the padlock keeping the monster Tommy in the freezer broken. The little version of Tommy isn’t in the back of the truck and he’s not totally disappeared either. He and some of his buddies attack the girls as they try to drive away.

Mike gets home and tells Jody that the Tall Man’s dwarves got Reggie and the two girls who were looking after him. Jody locks Mike in his room. He forces the door with a screwdriver while Mike suspects that Jody will never return gain. Mike figures out a way to get out of his room like MacGyver or something by taking a shotgun shell, a tack, some scotch tape, and a hammer to blow the door open.

When Mike tries to leave the house to catch up with Jody, he’s surprised by the Tall Man who tells the boy that he’s been waiting for him and reveals that his fingers have grown back. He tosses Mike into the back of the hearse. Mike uses the gun he grabbed before leaving to blow out the back window and shoot through the bottom of the interior to blow out a tire. He jumps out of the vehicle before the hearse hits a pole and explodes.

Mike enters the mortuary and is about to be attacked by a silver ball when Jody comes around the corner and shoots the ball to bits with a shotgun. Mike explains there’s a door at the end of one of the hallways that they should go check out. This is the door that has the unearthly vibrating sound and bright lights that the spooky chick looked in on earlier in the movie. When they are about to open the door, they are surprised by Reggie who didn’t die.

By the way, Reggie seemingly dying only to not die is a recurring thing in this series. We’ll be covering that a lot more later on in the sequels. It’s actually extremely important when we finally get to the fifth, and final, film.

Reggie explains that he’s been hiding out in a coffin while everything’s gone down. He also explains that he found the two girls that were with Mike earlier and a couple more girls he’s never seen before. He snuck them out of the place and they took off for safety. I have to suspect that one of those girls is the occult lady’s granddaughter. It would make sense that Reggie wouldn’t know who she is if she’s closer to Mike’s age.

They go into the room and they see a completely white room with barrels stacked up and two metal poles. When you pass something through the pools, it seems to disappear. Mike first tries sticking his hand in there, like he did earlier with the box from the weird old lady and her creepy chick of a granddaughter. The more he plays around with it, the more it suddenly sucks him into it and he begins falling through a red void. When he looks at the ground beneath him, he sees the cannisters with a line of dwarves.

Things are starting to get weird in this series so, hold on tight, my dear Enemaniacs. Mike figures out that the Tall Man is from another dimension. The dwarves are slaves. They are shrunk down because of the pressure in the other dimension’s gravity and heat. Reggie buys this immediately.

Mike, Jody, and Reggie are suddenly separated when the lights go out in the white room. When the lights come back up, Reggie is alone. He sees the two poles to be something like tuning forks like he uses to tune his guitar. He decides to stick his hands on the top of the two poles to stop the vibration. As he does that, the woman in the purple dress outside who is about to plunge her dagger into Mike’s back gasps in pain and the white room begins to suck everything into the other dimension.

Outside, a terrible wind storm picks up as everything begins to go to hell. Reggie comes out of the mortuary and finds the blonde in the purple dress. He tries to help her, but she stabs him. Reggie seemingly dies (hold that thought for a sec). Mike and Jody find each other and, realizing that Reggie must be dead, they escape while the mortuary glows and disappears.

They go back home and Jody says there’s an old mine shaft that he will lead the Tall Man to and then push a boulder over the entry to trap him. While Jody sets the trap, the Tall Man attacks Mike at home. Mike runs away from the Tall Man who tells him he’s played a good game, but the game’s over. It’s time for him to die. Illusions of gravestones, a puddle, and the babe in the purple dress appear to Mike, but he keeps reminding himself to not fear. He leads the Tall Man to the trap where he falls in and Jody covers the mine shaft with rocks to keep him in.

Things are not as wrapped up as it may seem.

Mike wakes up in bed on a stormy night. He goes downstairs and tells Reggie about how he still hears the sounds and that he knows the rocks will not hold the Tall Man. Reggie says he had a bad dream. Jody died a week ago. He’s hardly slept since then. Mike laments how “he” first took his parents and then “he” took Jody. Now “he” is after him. Reggie reveals that Jody didn’t get taken by any tall man. He died in a car accident.

Reggie is now looking after Mike and wants to be a big brother for the kid. Mike is still reeling from these dreams. Reggie suggests they hit the road and just go somewhere. Reggie tells Mike to get his gear and come back down and they’ll leave right now. Mike starts getting his stuff and that’s when we see that maybe there is more to these dreams than Reggie knows.

BOOOOOOY!

And that’s how the movie ends. Remember, there was no intention at the time, or at least no likely expectation, of a sequel to this movie. In fact, Phantasm II wouldn’t be made until ten years later. This movie ends with a third act that is a bit of a mind fuck.

It’s there that we find out about other planets and/or dimensions. We see Reggie seemingly die only to be shown as alive at the end. The mortuary completely implodes in on itself. We find out that who actually died was Jody and it was likely before the movie began.

So what does it all mean?

Coscarelli was likely inspired by movies like Suspiria, as I mentioned earlier. That means he was likely taking a nugget of an idea and then letting the mood and the strangeness kind of speak for itself. However, I think there’s a lot to read into with Phantasm. I look at this movie being a complete fabrication of a 13-year old boy having to deal with a hell of a lot of loss in his life. He already lost his parents a couple years prior to the movie. Then, he’s lost his brother. When exactly that happened, it’s hard to say, but I really do believe it happened before the start of the movie.

His mind is probably switching Tommy for Jody. He’s imagining or dreaming of a chance for he and his brother fighting and defeating death itself. Naturally, the Tall Man is the physical representation of the Grim Reaper in this case. He’s holding onto his big brother’s memory in the only way he can which is to give them this kind of adventure. This is a kid who’s lost everything and is cracking from it. It’s likely when he heard Jody talking about taking him to his aunt to live with her, it’s probably what Reggie was thinking. By the end, he’s changed his mind and he’s wanting to be there for this poor kid.

This would account for disjointed elements of the movie and the general change of genre and tone as the movie progresses through the three acts. The more troubled Mike is dealing with Jody’s death, the more wild the story becomes until it becomes a literal situation in which dwarves are being used as slaves on a different planet. But the dwarves aren’t just normal dwarves, they are the soulless husks of dead people turned against the living. In a way, it’s just a different type of haunting.

Think about this too… Don Coscarelli probably conceived of this movie in the waning days of the Vietnam War. That was a very traumatic time in which people were being sent off to an unpopular war. When they returned, they were either coming home in a casket, as a shell of someone they used to be, considered a villain for fighting that unpopular war, or they had issues readjusting to normal life stateside again. There were younger kids seeing their big brothers go off and come back changed – if they actually came back at all (literally or figuratively). It probably did try to at least address some of those deep seeded fears and sadness of families and siblings in the aftermath of Vietnam.

I’m not alone in this analysis. A lot of people, Coscarelli and Scrimm included, note how this is an examination of how we deal with death in our society. In addition, dreams are also analyzed too. Why does the Tall Man seem to win in the end? Well, if he is death itself, you can’t defeat death anywhere but in dreams. It’s a dour reminder that death is inevitable. If pretty much all of this movie is Mike’s dream, then he and Jody defeated death together. Only after waking, did the reality come crashing back onto Mike. He groggily blends his dreams with reality as he talks to Reggie about that dream he just woke up from.

In the end, Phantasm is more than your run of the mill horror movie. It’s not a slasher movie. It’s not even all that R-rated. Sure, the girl in the purple dress shows her boobs a couple times. A few harsher cuss words are uttered, but not that often. There is a little bit of levity between Jody, Mike, and Reggie. It wants to say something and make you think a little bit. It just took a while for people to really dig as deep as they needed to find those themes of death, mourning, and loss – in particular, for a sibling.

It’s also better than most of the era’s horror movies. It’s certainly more interesting and original than a large number of horror movies ever made. The sequels are a whole other story. Not that they are necessarily bad, but they take the themes of this movie and the ending and go off into some pretty wild directions. It almost seems like each sequel had its own set of themes and almost could be their own movies separate from this first one. The fifth and final movie has a particular poignant theme but it took me a long time to understand it.

We’re going to go through all of them in August.

Before we wrap it up, I have some homework for you to do. You should follow B-Movie Enema on Facebook and Twitter. I also recommend you subscribe to the B-Movie Enema YouTube Channel. Why? Because Season 3 of B-Movie Enema: The Series is coming in hot and fast on Saturday, May 7. There are 17 movies for you to spend the summer watching, and if you want to be able to see every single episode, even the ones that YouTube takes down for silly reasons, then I recommend you do one (or both) of the following – subscribe to the B-Movie Enema Vimeo channel or add the B-Movie Enema Roku channel.

For now, let’s shut it down for this week. Next on the docket is the return of Lucio Fulci as I take a look at his 1988 horror film Aenigma. Until then, I’ll see you on the other side!

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