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Entries in Phantasm [1979] (1)

Saturday
Feb022013

Phantasm (1979)

Funeral Parlor Tricks

A few years ago, I learned the hard way that growing up sucks. When sitting down with a couple of friends to watch Phantasm, I assured the youngest member of our group (a newbie at age twenty-four) that this creepy, intense staple of childhood sleepovers was an incredible experience he'd never forget. I probably should have revisited the movie before making such a claim: he was horrified, all right--by the dated cheesiness of the whole production.

I was mortified. Had my eleven-year-old brain been so distracted by boobs and blood that it overlooked the bizarre folk-music number, wooden acting, and jaw-dropping scene in which two characters wrestle a demonic fly they've trapped in a jacket? Whatever the case, there was no way to counter the groans, eye-rolls, and laughter coming from the other side of the couch. After awhile, I joined in.

Like all great movies, Phantasm is best appreciated through repeat viewings at various stages in one's life. Watching it yesterday morning, I was neither scared nor amused. This time out, I was fascinated by all the details I'd never noticed in a film that's been with me for a quarter-century. Let's begin with the fact that writer/director Don Coscarelli's first horror movie isn't really a horror movie at all. It's a dark fantasy with elements of gore and sex, but whose story has more in common with science fiction than body-count pictures.

The film stars Bill Thornbury as Jody, a traveling musician who returns home following the death of his parents. He cares for his teenage brother, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), and hangs out with his amateur-guitarist/professional-ice-cream-man buddy, Reggie (Reggie Bannister). When a mutual friend dies of an apparent suicide, the trio becomes embroiled in the mystery of Morningside, the funeral home and cemetery in which his body is interred. Its grouchy director, known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), is intent on keeping snoops off his property--probably so they don't notice him lifting full caskets out of the ground like rolls of craft paper.

Morningside has a hell of a security system. While wandering the mausoleum's halls after hours, Mike encounters The Ball--a flying silver sphere that sprouts twin razors and a drill when it senses human flesh. He's also chased by hooded mutant dwarves who turn out to be compressed, re-animated corpses. There's a greater secret buried in the walls, which I won't reveal; suffice it to say Coscarelli has some really creepy thoughts on his mind regarding the so-called "afterlife".

Phantasm is the rare film that I would love to see remade. The original has terrific ideas, a handful of decent scares, and lots of ground-breaking (to me) narrative trickery in which reality and surreality become interchangeable.* It also has a more sophisticated score and sound design, seemingly higher production values, and ambitious practical stunts than one might expect from a low-budget thriller. But the balance between impressive and hands-over-the-eyes-embarrassing material is just off-kilter enough to make this a cautious recommendation for anyone new to the series.

I'm not suggesting that Phantasm be run through Hollywood's remake meat grinder. No, I'd want Coscarelli himself to take the reins with a larger budget, more convincing special effects technology, and an entire generation of talented, young performers who grew up in the post-After School Special era. In addition to maturing as a director, he's also become a more sophisticated editor, meaning we wouldn't have to justify any weird jumps as being "of the times". Evidence for all these claims can be found in the filmmaker's latest effort, John Dies at the End--a film so screwy and evolved in its presentation that a new take on Phantasm seems like Coscarelli's next logical move.

Sorry for the weird review. Knowing that ten years from now, or twenty-five years from now, I might have a different take on Phantasm, it's difficult to commit to a point of view. Those of you who've seen it (more specifically, those of you who saw it at a young age) probably know what I'm talking about. But if you've never even heard of Phantasm, do yourself a favor and seek it out. If you're open to the experience, you may just discover a fun, eerie little movie that was way ahead of its time.

Seriously, though, take an e-mail break or something when that fly shows up.

*I'd love to know how familiar Wes Craven was with Phantasm at the time he made A Nightmare on Elm Street. The endings are identical, and it's shocking that Craven had such a hard time making his believable--given the gleaming template Coscarelli laid out five years before.