Saturday, October 5, 2013

Phantasm

Phantasm (1979), the film that made director Don Coscarelli's name in the horror genre, taps into a universal fear, a collective unease we don't always wish to confront. The story of two brothers and their ice-cream man friend who battle an evil mortician who steals and enslaves the bodies of the dead is really about a more fundamental anxiety: Jawas, those hooded dwarves from Star Wars. Hiding their faces, speaking some indecipherable language, stealing robots in the desert, there's something creepy about them. Did anyone shed a tear when we found out stormtroopers had wiped them out?

Ok, there aren't any Jawas in Phantasm, only hooded zombie dwarves, and even then, they aren't the only threat in the movie. There are also the flying metal balls (dubbed "Sentinels" in the sequels) that latch onto the foreheads of victims, drill into their skulls, and spray out all their blood and brains. Then, there's the mysterious woman in Lavender; she seduces men in the cemetery and murders them. But she's not even real, merely a disguise of the true villain of the piece: the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the mysterious mortician who steals bodies of the dead to use as slave labor on another planet, and when two brothers, 13-year-old Mike (Michael Baldwin) and 24-year-old Jody (Bill Thornbury), stumble upon his scheme, he sets his wrath on them, along with their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), an ice-cream man.

That's the ... I was going to say that's the plot of Phantasm, but it's probably more accurate to state that's what happens in the movie. Narrative cohesion and plot structure aren't to be expected from any Phantasm movie; anyone looking for either can only expect to find a jumbled mess and frustration. Scenes jump around, characters pop up and then vanish, never to be seen or mentioned again, and the lack of clear transitions only creates more confusion. In one scene, Mike goes to a fortune teller before the movie cuts away to a scene between Mike and Jody only for the movie to cut back to the fortune teller scene; looking back, it's meant to be flashback, but the movie doesn't make that immediately clear.

What the movie lacks in clarity, it makes up with a surreal, dream-like atmosphere, and that's actually enough to make it work as a spooky, unsettling picture. Phantasm functions as a cinematic representation of a nightmare, and in nightmares, not everything makes sense, and that's part of what makes nightmares scary. In dreams, friends can be enemies, the mundane threatening, and the irrational the only logic at work. Phantasm, for all of its nonsensical storytelling, captures that feeling better than almost any other movie I can think of.

In interviews, Coscarelli said he was inspired by the sci-fi classic Invaders from Mars, a paranoid tale of a boy who tries to convince people that aliens are taking over people, including his parents and the police. Few things are terrifying in a nightmare as a parent turning against his or her child, especially if that child is you. In Phantasm, Coscarelli incorporates that notion of a boy seeing things that adults either can't see or refuse to see. In this world adults are mysteriously threatening, especially old people like the Tall Man, and venturing into a creepy mortuary regularly ends with being chased and/or getting lost.

The Tall Man is certainly an iconic horror movie. villain. Tall, gaunt, he looms over everybody, and he's not afraid to get his hands dirty, whether it's by lifting a casket all by himself or chasing after Mike, arms outstretched. His first face-to-face encounter with Mike is classic; Mike turns around to see the Tall Man standing at the ending of the hallway. He takes a step forward, and so does the Tall Man. And so on, the Tall Man matching every one of Mike's movements, each step echoing through the lonely corridor of the mortuary until they're merely feet apart. There's a pause. Then Mike takes off and the chase ensues. That's one of those nightmare logic scenes; the taunting villain who waits for his target to make the first move.

A movie like Phantasm  can make you believe that had Mike not run, the Tall Man would have stood there staring at him forever.

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