Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. As I continue to work on my next video, putting me still behind on schedule, I look back a horror film that seems to fall into being one of the most unique forms of the genre that I can’t recall being recreated by anyone ever again. The fact that movies like these can and do exist ended up getting me through high school.
Don Coscarelli has this fucking gift. This brilliant gift is Don Coscarelli’s. The gift of being able to take a premise that nobody else could possibly have conceived in their fucking minds – wholly unique creations in their implausibility, lack of logic, and ridiculousness – and making it into a halfway decent movie. He’s over the many years made a career out of this.
If I had to guess, it probably comes out of the fact that he is totally 100 percent dedicated to his status as an independent filmmaker, having built himself up from the top and sort of stayed in a perpetual status as an independent filmmaker instead of moving up like Sam Raimi or Rian Johnson. And so, we get to the origins of Phantasm, his first big hit that put him on the map and at the same time, the one film franchise that he is however chained to return to – all the way to the fifth film that has been announced that he is producing and co-writing (though interestingly enough no release date has been given).
After making a couple of early films, Coscarelli had a nightmare about himself being chased down marble corridors twisting and turning by a floating sphere intent on drilling into his head. After this, he locked himself in a cabin in the middle of the night and decided to write himself a low-budget horror flick based on this idea and whatever else he can pile onto this nightmare. And then he got to shooting it in 1977 and two years of post-production later, spilled out Phantasm onto screens everywhere.
And of course, the first thing one will immediately think upon looking at the film is how much it couldn’t possibly be made by any studio – not only from how blatantly micro-budget and cheap it looks (It was made 300,000 dollars and we can see where every bit of the money went to without being disappointed), but also from how ludicrous and wacky the premise is and how it practically pulls everything out of its own box.
My attempt to sum it up: Old pals and bandmates Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) meet up to bury their old friend Tommy, but Jody is noticing strange incidents occurring around the mausoleum. In the meantime, Jody’s younger brother Michael (Michael A. Baldwin) has been noticing the same shifty incidents as well as witnessing the unnerving activity of the local mortician The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm).
The Scooby-Doo esque investigation that occurs on the behavior of the mortuary and what it holds is pretty much the center of the entire plot as Jody, Michael and Reggie begin to deal with the threats that are emitted out of the building. And man, do they come out en force. Not only do the trio have to deal with the metallic bloodthirsty orbs that Coscarelli dreamed about, but they also do battle with little-robed dwarfs coming off as the more demonic incarnations of the Jawas from Star Wars and the fiendish experiments of the Tall Man himself.
Every little piece of monsterwork for the film adds more and more to the devoted momentum of the story. Underneath all of this phantasmagoric galleria is a subplot that doesn’t really carry the film nor undercut it too much involving the relationship between Jody and Michael – Jody deliberately did not bring Michael to Tommy’s funeral due to Michael’s behavior after the death of their parents and has been growing more and more weary under the role of guardian for Michael. This makes Jody a little more reluctant to involve himself in the activities of Michael, but eventually the three of our protagonists gear up for a final showdown at the Mortuary.
Anyway, the main point is the atmosphere of the movie, because the script is too muddled to again approach directly and the actors aren’t really giving it much to work with, all the little bit between passable and terrible. And before we dig into the thick of the horror, we have to approach something else that Phantasm becomes. It becomes a bit of a piece of small-town Americana from the eyes of a kid who is forced to grow up. Not too shocking, considering the previous films of Coscarelli were also small-town stories of kids coming-of-age, but Phantasm becomes a bit more into itself. At points of course, mixing the storylines gives the film its own drawback and feels a little more shoehorned than as organically escalating as the horror elements (there is one scene that grinds my gears most as it is a total rip-off of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune) and there are especially some moments between Jody and Reggie that add pretty much nothing to the film (I think in particular to a musical scene between the two that, while I enjoy the song, I’d rather get back on track).
But then, there is also the creepy facets of the film. The mausoleum setpieces have a serious Kubrickian air in their ivory essence that interestingly pre-dates The Shining but elicits a similar feeling to me (I do however find the possibility that Stanley Kubrick watched Phantasm dubious at best). Their halls, even without any of the minions of the Tall Man scrambling around, are incredibly eerie, you practically hear the wind whispers with the little synthesizer theme that echoes all throughout the movie. But when the jumps happen, they happen big – there’s a cartoonishly gorey moment in the middle of the film that notoriously gave it an X rating. The effects work with what they got, but they go whole hog the whole way through – reversed shots of spheres and makeup jobs involving red and yellow blood all the way around and even a lavish if minimal setpiece involving the introduction of the world The Tall Man and his slaves come from, doused in complete crimson.
All this added alongside the briskness of the 88 minute movie that pushes it around gives the film the watermark of independent cinema and yet still the facsimile look of an Italian horror film such as Bava and Argento. The film is nowhere near a perfect film, certainly not a great film, and some people might easily argue that it is a terrible film. I’ve made no mistake in noting the shoddy emptiness of the script – the original cut of the film was three hours long and it was severely cut wisely by Coscarelli himself, so there is certainly more about the film than we know. And it feels like how it cost, which is not exactly a bad thing, but it doesn’t exactly fool you the way Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead manage to do.
No, what we do at least end up with is a brand new experience of cinema based on the mania of Don Coscarelli, who decided he wanted to make a horror story and at least gave us one we can talk about, if not one we can’t praise entirely. That’s good enough for me.