Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Phantasm

This post was originally published on the Wild Claw Blood Radio blog.

Phantasm (1979, directed by Don Coscarelli), is a film that I hadn't seen since it first showed up on cable in, oh, 1980 or so. I remember not really liking it way back then, but I had such dim memories of it that I was eager to revisit it when the roulette wheel spun it my way. I mean it's one of the foundational late-seventies cult movies. I fancy myself a student of the horror genre, so I should probably have an informed opinion, right?

It turns out that I still don't like it, though I'm amused at the way it assembles its story elements at random, occasionally from pop-culture allusions. Post-modernism was all the rage among the young turks of horror in the late seventies. I'm also struck by how much like a childrens' movie it plays.

Most of Phantasm was lost on the younger me: It has a Gom Jabbar and the Bene Gesserit invocation against fear! I missed that all those years ago, because at the time, I hadn't read Dune. Coscarelli makes sure that you don't miss the reference by naming the bar in the next scene "Dune's Cantina," which pulls double duty as an allusion, I guess. There's a paperback edition of Roger Zelazny's My Name is Legion on a table at one point, too, which tips the filmmakers' hands. This is a sci fi movie masquerading as a horror movie. Anyway, the Gom Jabbar made me laugh and redirected my attention to it's sheer ridiculousness. The story is a mishmash, in which our teen hero, Mike, eavesdrops on a funeral for one of his older brother's friends and notices some odd things about the proprietor of the mortuary. It seems that he's a front for a race of extra-dimensional dwarves who are plucking slaves from this world. The proprietor, The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), is a shape-shifter who occasionally assumes the form of a beautiful girl to lure her victims. One of the victims in his/her net is Mike's brother, Jody, who is all Mike has left in the world after their parent's death. Weirdness ensues...

Phantasm was a hot item among my schoolmates when it originally hit cable, mostly for the boobs, but also for that nasty little flying ball. The ball reminds me of the kind of stuff that kids imagine as the worst kinds devices dealing bodily mutilation, like imagining sliding down a railing and having it turn into a razor. The stuff of EC Comics, in other words, but not connected to anything that's actually scary. It's a gross-out effect. For myself, I remember focusing on the weird transsexual imagery, but that's just a reflection of my own personal peccadilloes, I guess. It's not a movie that stands up to close scrutiny, because it doesn't make a lick of sense. It's a shambolic enterprise full of ideas, but lacking in both the talent and resources to bring them fully to life.


Wings1295 said...

I rewatched this last year myself, after having not seen it since I was a kid. In fact, I watched all of the Phantasm films. And you are right, they tend to be more scifi than horror. Weird, sometimes overly confusing scifi. Nothing I will bother to rewatch again. The Tall Man is creepy, in a way, but the whole this is more weirdly bizarre. Some kind of leftover 70s acid trip.

- said...

I remember seeing this film on cable (I think the Z channel...best cable channel ever) back in the late 70's when I was 8 or 9. And I will be quite honest that it freaked me out, mostly because of the end. I saw Carrie when I was around 5 and the end gave me a phobia of things coming out of nowhere and grabbing me. So, of course, the end of Phantasm played right into that phobia and for a good long while, I always checked behind every door of an uninhabited room before I cam in to make sure the Tall Man or some other of his ilk was not there.

I thought the sequel was something of a comedy, along the likes of Waxwork 2. I suppose if I watched the films today, I'd find them all laughable, but the lingering phobia would probably stick with me just a little.


Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Wings. I think "70s acid trip" is about right. It certainly came out at the height of the midnight movie era, so I'm sure there were some seriously altered consciousnesses watching this movie on its original run, given that midnight movies were an excuse for suburban kids to go somewhere and get stoned.

Hi, Natasha. Please pardon my insane envy. I never saw Z channel. I was stuck with the early days of HBO, which was a poor substitute. The last scene of Carrie is the greatest cheap shot in movies. It doesn't add anything to the narrative and turns Carrie White into a monster after all, but damned if it doesn't linger in the mind for decades. Horror filmmakers have been trying to replicate that scene for decades, to no good effect.

- said...

Z Channel was worth insane envy. Although I didn't appreciate as much as I would now, I still remember watching the uncut Once Upon A Time in America. Someone needs to revive that channel.


Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: I was terribly let down by Phantasm when I watched it for the first time about two years ago. I’ve never been able to be sure if this disappointment was the result of outrageously high levels of expectation (I had a friend or two who's opinions I respect, just blather and rave about the film - making it sound like a film that very well might change my life).

It didn't change my life. I barely kept awake. I just thought it unbearably pretentious. The not making "a lick of sense”,” as you say, really bothered me a ton. It felt to me, and still does, like an arty film maker that skipped over the part in his resume where he proves he has control of linear storytelling.

I may have to give it another try and try to see it clean.

Per usual - Good, good stuff.

Bob Turnbull said...

I can't disagree with any of the criticism aimed at the film here - but it remains as a wonderful memory from when I was 16. My older brother and I stumbled upon it late at night and thought the flying killer ball was the COOLEST thing ever. Remember, we were adolescent males...And the ending and the Tall Man and etc.

I've seen it since (I bought the DVD before revisiting it) and it certainly doesn't hold up in all the ways everyone has stated here. I still manage to eke out some enjoyment from it though - the ball is nowhere near as cool as I remember it being, but there's still a bit of the 16 year-old inside me watching with wide eyes.