Welcome to this week's Horror Squad Movie Club Discussion Post. Hopefully everyone got a chance to view (or re-view) Phantasm and is now ready to share their thoughts and feelings about The Tall Man's first cinematic outing. I'm going to try and keep this short (famous last words...) so that you guys can chime in. I think there are a ton of things to talk about in Don Coscarelli's film and I'm looking forward to reading how other people have interpreted it.
One of the most interesting things about Phantasm for me has always been the way it presents the story of Mike, Jody, Reggie, and The Tall Man in such hazy, dreamlike way. When I first wrote about the film years ago, I stated that I felt like Phantasm was the closest American cinema had come to replicating the mood and vibe of the classic Italian horror films -- most notably Argento's Suspiria, which came out two years prior. I've never heard Coscarelli mention if Argento's film was an influence or not, and it seems at least somewhat unlikely since I'd guess that Phantasm was already being conceived at the time of Suspiria's release, but there are some interesting parallels between the two films. Phantasm, like Suspiria, attempts to create a modern fairy tale told with nightmare logic.
Both films are reminiscent of our worst night terrors--intensely disturbing and terrifying while we're experiencing them, but almost ludicrous when recounted during the light of day. How silly does Angus Scrimm's The Tall Man sound when you describe him to someone who hasn't seen the film? Pretty ridiculous--he's a tall, goofy-looking mortician. However, when actually viewing the film, Scrimm is creepy and unsettling -- and one of our most beloved genre icons because of it.
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I've always liked the nightmare logic of Phantasm because it never allows the viewer to get settled. Many horror films wander off the rails because they're predictable. Once an audience knows what's happening, they then know what to expect and it becomes exponentially more difficult to frighten them. Coscarelli and company never allow that to happen, keeping the viewer constantly off-balance and unprepared for the scares he's concocted. Rather than throw in cheap boo! moments to elicit a response, Phantasm works on a much deeper and darker level and I love it for that.
Keeping with the idea of influences, there are others that turn up in the film. The most obvious is in the presentation of the "slaves" that Scrimm is sending back to his home world. Everyone looks at them and immediately thinks Phantasm ripped off the Jawas from Star Wars. However, Coscarelli insists that they'd already conceived the look and design of the slaves before Lucas's film hit--and I believe him. On the DVD commentary track, the director mentions that they considered changing the appearance of the undead creatures after someone saw the similarities in the Star Wars trailer, but they decided to stay the course.
Two other things worth pointing out are the shots of the mortuary at night and the final sequence of the film. The mid-range shots of the funeral home after dark are very reminiscent of similar shots conceived by cinematographer Dean Cundey in John Carpenter's Halloween, most notably the shots of the house where Annie's babysitting. Again, I'm not sure if there was a direct influence there, but Coscarelli's scene compositions are just as striking and effective as Cundey's. The film's final sequence, meanwhile, seems more likely to have been the influencer as opposed to the influenced. Stinger shock endings were nothing new in 1979--De Palma had gotten us used to them with Carrie--but the execution of the last scene in Phantasm reminds me a lot of the final sequence in Wes Craven's seminal 1984 slasher film, A Nightmare on Elm Street. The way Angus Scrimm turns up to pull Michael through the broken mirror is very reminiscent of Freddy ripping Ronee Blakely through the front door in NOES. Both films end in a downbeat way, stating that some evils can never truly be vanquished.
These are just some of the things I love about Phantasm in a completely geeky way. I'm not even going to talk about the lighting (Bava and Argento-esque again), the freaky old psychic woman and what that scene might mean, the awesomeness of Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm, the amazing soundtrack (which, once again, evokes memories of classic Italian horror), or the wickedly awesome balls of doom. I leave all of that, and the countless other cool things about Phantasm, to you guys. Hit the comment section below to discuss one of the greatest under-appreciated horror films around.
Also, if you want to get an early start on next week's assignment (coming courtesy of Horror Squad's Editor in Chief Scott Weinberg), grab a copy of Session 9. Trust me, you won't regret it.