Thirty years of horror: Phantasm (1979)

Tom: As most horror movies progress, they lose their mystery and therefore their impact. The exposition bubbles up and molds itself precisely into whatever template the movie is using. Oh, it’s aliens, radiation, the devil, a ghost, etc. Now I see. Phantasm is a movie without a “now I see” moment. Even the ultimate reveal in the antique shop is more of a “so…uh?” moment than a “now I see moment”. This sort of batshit absurd senseless implausibility is a precious commodity.

After the jump, let me break it down for you.

Tom: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. An alien mortician who can disguise himself as a sleazy blonde chick, and who controls flying silver balls that drill into your brain, and whose severed digits become deadly superstrong insects, spends hundreds of years in a small town shrinking down corpses, reanimating them, dressing them in little brown robes that totally aren’t Jawa costumes, and sending them through a transdimensional portal to serve as slave labor on a planet with high gravity. The implications and questions and possibilities are dizzying. Who makes up this stuff?

His name is Don Coscarelli. He wrote, directed, shot, and edited Phantasm. It will haunt him for the rest of his career as a filmmaker. This movie has every sign of giving us another Brian Depalma, John Carpenter, or Sam Raimi. But Coscarelli will squander years with a string of increasingly bad sequels (Phantasm IV was actually finished [sic] by splicing in leftover footage from the original movie). Bubba Ho-tep was good almost entirely because of Bruce Campbell, and his latest movie, John Dies at the End, shows no sign of the unhinged genius that went into Phantasm.

Chris: There really is no analog for Phantasm that I can come up with. There’s aliens and possessions and body snatching and teen slasher tropes here, along with bugs that look like zuni fetish dolls with wings. There are the aforementioned dudes heading out for some Star Wars cosplay. It’s a Flaming Carrot comic book come to life, and the real genius here lies in Coscarelli’s ability to tie it all together in some sort of vaguely unified whole.

This movie is completely and utterly tied to a time and place. If you’re old enough to have been of a certain age between 1975 and 1983, this movie just can’t not work for you. If that doesn’t apply, you’re likely to to be baffled by it all. For me and Tom, part of the effectiveness of this nonsensical, clumsy, unintentionally hilarious film is its time capsule effect. Cool cars, wanky music, big bell jeans, bad movies…suburbia wasn’t really like this, but it sure felt like this. No one broke into impromptu guitar jam sessions on their porches in the late 1970s, but it felt like it could happen. Nowadays the neighbors would call the cops.

Tom: Unintentionally hilarious? When? I have to confess I’m completely blind to any clunkiness in this movie. I can’t take exception to any of the acting, which is so utterly endearing to me, from Jody’s forced supercool to Reggie’s horrible timing to young Mike’s obvious inexperience and even more obvious overreactions. Angus Scrimm is scary because the movie tells us so, and I’ll gladly take its word for it. He’s like the kindly uncle who makes a great scary face because it’s actually scary to us kids. Even the four token blonde chicks, who can’t deliver lines to save their lives or even scream convincingly, are exactly as they should be, with their vacant faces and feathered hair. Why does the creepy blind psychic laugh when Mike leaves the gom jabbar session? Who knows but what a wonderful moment. Of course, one of the most memorable performances in Phantasm is that unnaturally sexy Plymouth Barracuda. Not everything in the 70s was tacky.

Chris: I have to think the black Impala in Supernatural is a direct homage to that sweet-ass ‘Cuda, right?

Tom: Perhaps, but I’m pretty sure the coolness of black muscle cars is a universal constant, like the value of pi. Also, ha ha, you watch Supernatural.

Chris: There are so many favorite “acting” moments here. I’m not sure who has the better “What the (insert “fuck” or “heck” here) moment. Mike’s is great because we see him mouth it twice, but Jody’s is the stuff of sheer cinematic iconography. He gets his line done with a pair of panties in his mouth. Let’s see Daniel Day Lewis try that.

Honestly, if there was consistency to the film it’d be stupid and dull instead of just sort of hilariously awesome. I love how the sphere seems to spew six gallons of blood from the guy’s head in the funeral home…but we next see Mike on a pristine white floor. I love how the movie actually never shows us impossible acts. The Barracuda nearly crushes poor Mike, trapping him beneath it…and then the next scene he’s standing up, fine. This is moviemaking. Can’t figure out how to show it? Fine. Don’t shoot it.

Tom: Again, I don’t understand what’s hilarious! He’s a little kid. Kids flatten. The physics in Phantasm are as sturdy as the belt on Mike’s jeans that Jody and Reggie use to pull him back through a dimensional portal.

And there’s nothing hilarious about the shrewd interplay of reality and dreams, which anticipates what Wes Craven will do to more popular effect in Nightmare on Elm Street. Say what you will about the amateur production values, but I maintain the dream sequences approach Kubrick’s level of genius, if not his baffling inscrutability. Phantasm is so clearly a movie about abandonment issues, and one of its strengths is how Coscarelli is able to maintain this focus throughout the batshit absurdity of everything else. It’s just a wonder to me the song Reggie and Jody play didn’t turn out to be a hit single. “Just Sittin’ Here (Theme to Phantasm)”.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)

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