The Re-Appreciator #4: Phantasm

Phantasm

The Re-Appreciator is a feature in which I dust off the classics (and/or personal favorites). If you’ve seen the movie in question, perhaps I’ll provoke a new thought or two. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps I’ll compel you to check it out.

6 Reasons to Re-Appreciate Phantasm

1. The Effort

Phantasm tells the story of two orphaned brothers, 24-year-old Jody (Bill Thornbury) and 13-year-old Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) living in a small California town. The film opens with the murder of their friend, Tom, by a mysterious woman in a lavender dress. Mike observes the funeral from afar along with strange happenings at Morningside Cemetery. What looks like a dwarf in a brown cloak seems to be scurrying about the tombstones; and after the service, the sinister undertaker, known only as “the Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm), singlehandedly hoists Tom’s coffin into the hearse with superhuman strength.

Unaware of the circumstances of Tom’s murder, Jody picks up the same Lady in Lavender at the local bar. They go to the cemetery to make out. Mike, a budding voyeur, follows but disrupts them when the cloaked dwarf attacks him. Mike escapes the dwarf, and the woman slips away from Jody, but Mike has become a target; the dwarf attacks him again while he’s working under a car in his garage.

Jody doesn’t believe Mike’s story about the dwarf, which leads Mike to explore Morningside himself. He breaks into the mortuary only be chased by a wicked flying silver sphere, the Tall Man, and additional dwarfs. Mike makes it home and convinces Jody to help him stop the Tall Man’s unexplained-but-evil plans.

Writer/director/cinematographer/editor Don Coscarelli financed Phantasm’s slight budget through his father, doctors, and lawyers. Shooting took place on weekends (to save money on the equipment-rental fees), and went on for more than a year. Coscarelli’s mother contributed to the production design, costuming, and makeup. His cast and crew largely consisted of friends and/or amateurs with day jobs. He did the camerawork and edited the film himself (also to save money). Postproduction took another six to eight months, including a disastrous test screening of an early cut.

In other words, Phantasm is as truly indie and DIY as a film can be. It’s not perfect, but Team Coscarelli’s undeniable passion compensates for most of its flaws. All these years later, it remains an impressive example of what a filmmaker can accomplish outside the corporate studio system.

2. The Ambition

Limited to a $300,000 budget, Coscarelli probably would have had a much easier time if he’d made something simple and straightforward, like a slasher movie. Instead, he made a wild, effects-heavy movie that mashes up horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and surrealism. The result is refreshingly unique.

It turns out that the Tall Man isn’t just a mean-looking tall man, but a space alien with an eye toward world domination. Nor are those dwarfs just dwarfs; they’re shrunken zombie versions of the town’s dead citizens, repurposed as slaves on the Tall Man’s hellish home planet. Phantasm also finds time for a car chase and explosion, gunplay, and a nasty winged insect metamorphosed from the Tall Man’s severed finger.

This may sound like a hodgepodge – and it is – but it works more often than not. Most of the effects come off pretty well, especially given the budget. By the time Mike, Jody, and their friend Reggie discover the gateway to the Tall Man’s world in a blinding white room worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Phantasm’s lunacy has won over the viewer, or it hasn’t. Either way, it’s never dull, which can’t be said for the bulk of Hollywood product.

3. Tres Hombres

Coscarelli’s early cut was reportedly three hours long and contained more in the way of character development. After its poor reception, he went back and edited it down to 88 minutes. The movie’s odd dream-logic may owe itself to all that cutting; if you’re looking for a tight, coherent, linear plot with no loose ends, you may consider looking elsewhere.

Even so, the characters still come through vividly enough. Baldwin and Thornbury make for likable, believable brothers, and their relationship gives the movie a  surprising amount of heart. It touches upon the real-life grief, fear, and guilt that siblings in their situation would face. Most interestingly, Phantasm teases the possibility that everything we’re seeing is really Mike’s anxiety-driven nightmare or a psychotic delusion.

Reggie (Reggie Bannister) also emerges as an appealing character. He may not yet be the ass-kicking action machine with a quadruple-barrel shotgun (that will have to wait until the sequel), but he still proves to be an invaluable sidekick. Reggie, by the way, is a bald, guitar-slinging ice-cream vendor. Guys like Reggie don’t get to be heroic in the movies, except in the world of Phantasm. This is a major credit to Phantasm.

4. The Cruelest Beanball of All

Coscarelli has said that the idea of a flying, skull-drilling sphere came to him in a dream. If so, his subconscious deserves praise for inventing the most diabolical home security system in the history of cinema. Many other movies also have effort, ambition, and decent characters, but only Phantasm offers a murderous ball bearing.

Or at least it was the first do so. Phantasm was released in 1979. Phantasm II arrived in 1988 with the tagline, “The Ball Is Back!” The posters for all the Phantasm films feature the sphere, and the sequels roll out multiple spheres with increasingly sophisticated abilities. This is only natural. Coscarelli knows what he has here. When you  come up with something this inspired, there is no shame in going back to it once and again.

5. The Dwarfs

If the Tall Man is the boss, and the spheres provide the razzle-dazzle, where does that leave the cloaked dwarfs? They should not be underestimated. For one thing, the dwarfs put a novel spin on the zombie trope. Instead of the lumbering flesh-eaters we’ve seen everywhere from Romero to The Walking Dead for the last fifty years, Phantasm reanimates your dead friends and family as hideous minions. They’re slaves on their own planet and a vicious gang on this one. They’re both the end product of the Tall Man’s scheme and the means to carry it out. The machinery of the Tall Man is oiled with their yellow, embalming-fluid blood.

Respect the dwarfs. They may appear to be mere cannon fodder in the Tall Man’s war on humanity, but they’re really the unsung glue that holds the Phantasm universe together. They’re the salt of the red hell planet, and they will rise up and unite one day. The revolution is coming.

(Also, they rank pretty highly in the horror/sci-fi pantheon of theatrically-costumed dwarfs. I’d put them over the similar-looking but relatively harmless Jawas from Star Wars, and above the poor little man Ozzy Osbourne used to hang onstage to mock Ronnie James Dio on the Diary of a Madman tour. I might even put them on par with the crimson-cloaked killer from Don’t Look Now, though I would hesitate to put them ahead of the snowsuit-clad mutants in The Brood. Let’s not get too carried away here.)

6. Last But Never Least

Angus Scrimm passed away earlier this month at the age of 89. Phantasm has been widely beloved among horror fans for decades – J.J. Abrams is working on a spiffy new reissue due sometime this year – and Scrimm has a lot to do with that. The movie simply wouldn’t work without him.

Scrimm doesn’t talk much in Phantasm. In fact, he probably has less than ten lines. While he certainly makes the most of those, he doesn’t really need to speak. His screen presence is powerful enough. The Tall Man doesn’t lapse into camp or one-liners. There’s no backstory that serves to humanize him. He never becomes familiar, never becomes our friend. He’s pure malevolence, a figure cut from our nightmares. To play such a character, Scrimm committed to a performance that dared to take itself seriously. In turn, he gave us one of the great horror-movie villains.

Of course he will be missed, and this post is my way of saying thanks. Rest in Peace, Tall Man. Here’s hoping you’re in a much better place than Morningside.

__________

Recommended Reading:

The Austin Chronicle, “Sphere of Influence

L.A. Times; Hero Complex, “Happy Birthday, Tall Man! Phantasm Turns 30

 

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