Friday, February 27, 2009

Phantasm (1977)

He already had a couple of low-budget films under his belt, but Don Cascarelli's real splash came with his 1979 wacked-out trip of a horror film, PHANTASM. Embracing the spirit of DIY ethics, Coscarelli wrote, directed, photographed, edited and co-produced the film, giving audiences not only a new icon of the genre in the wonderfully menacing Tall Man (played by Angus Scrimm), but also a film that is a flag-bearer for originality and creativity on a minuscule budget.

Most people who haven't seen the film (or its numerous sequels, all helmed by Coscarelli) are most likely familiar with its major instrument of carnage: a flying metallic sphere with wicked little blades that burrow into your brain and funnel out the blood at the mental command of the Tall Man. But what is the film actually about? Mike (the young one) and Jody (the older, cooler one) are brothers trying to cope with the death of their parents. If it sounds like it's already treading into the confines of horror cliche, PHANTASM side-steps it by having the deaths already occur before the movie begins and using it instead to strengthen the sibling relationship between Mike and Jody, making it more genuine in the process. Mike begin to notice that things aren't as normal as they appear at the local mortuary: for one thing, the manager of the place is able to carry an full casket by himself (in a nice homage to NOSFERATU) with ease. Events go into Weird Overdrive when evil, hooded dwarfs show up and before you know it Mike, Jody, and their ice-cream truck driving friend Reggie are running for their lives as they become embroiled in a plan to extract the souls of the dead and ship them to an alien world as slavery.

Yes, you read that right. This mutha goes into Outer Space.

PHANTASM does so many things right, it's hard to know where to begin. In Jody and Mike we get protagonists we care about, and who from the outset appear to have fully functioning heads on their shoulders. Jody doesn't immediately believe Mike's assertions about the Tall Man, but when it's time to believe Jody buys in fully, and when he springs into action it's not as a supporting member but as someone fully vested in their survival.

And in Angus Scrimm we have a Tall Man that is both horrible and mysterious. We never really learn why he does what he does or even the extent of his considerable powers. Much of the horror simply comes from his presence, whether it's picking up the aforementioned casket by himself:

Or suddenly appearing behind Mike's bed in a nightmare:

It's this type of thing that makes PHANTASM so fun. The images and ideas are waaay out there, but executed with enthusiasm and care. The fact that it looks a little cheap add to the charm: what Coscarelli lacked in funds he makes up for in imagination and arresting visuals. The set direction is inspired - the interior of the mortuary is a surreal nightmare, all marbled black and white to make the inevitable spilling of blood that much more vibrant. The ending is somewhat twisty, but maybe because we're talking about a movie that's close to 30 years old it feels right considering what it is.

I've often criticized other movies for putting in incredible images that serve no purpose to the story. In PHANTASM the images are of the same caliber, but they serve a story that's just as fantastic. If you haven't seen it, you won't know what to expect going in and, in this day and age, that's a good thing. It's a horror movie perfectly suited for the kid who's too young to get into a horror movie: young heroes, lots of blood, a sprinkling of T&A - pretty much everything you can ask for when you're a 13 year-old who loves staying up late reading Stephen King and watching Twilight Zone re-runs. A perfect midnight movie to see with a bunch of friends.

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