Monday, August 23, 2010

You Play a Good Game, Boy: The Tao of the Tall Man

A phantasm has been defined as a "fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as in dreams."

But in terms of the Tall Man -- Angus Scrimm's iconic cinematic Bogeyman -- a phantasm can certainly be defined as a nightmare.

In Don Coscarelli's four Phantasm films -- spanning the years 1979 to 1998 -- the Tall Man has destroyed small-town America (not unlike Wal-Mart...), overturned the order of human life itself, and terrorized a triumvirate of heroic friends: Michael (Michael Baldwin), Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and Jody (Bill Thornbury).

Loping in gait, exceedingly grave of visage and utterly imposing in stature, The Tall Man reigns as one of the horror cinemas most fearsome, beloved, and long-lived Bogeyman. But what makes this creepy old ghoul tick? Why has The Tall Man endured as a figure of silver screen fear for so long?

The first answer, of course, rests with the actor essaying the role. Scrimm's menacing, growling performances are unforgettable, and that deep tenor voice is positively nightmare-inducing. Yet the character's mystique goes deeper. And so today, we must examine...the Tao of the Tall Man...

1.) He's the Personification of Death; the Personification of Adult "Knowledge:"

In my 2002 book Horror Films of the 1970s
, I wrote that the original 1979 Phantasm functions on many levels, but most effectively as the heroic dream fantasy of a lonely, sad boy (Michael) who feels haunted by the presence of death and betrayed by life; by reality itself.

This was my manner of accounting for the original film's captivating, almost child-like quality, wherein "something sinister" is lurking at the local cemetery and must be a rwelve-year old kid.

I don't mean that brief description of the inventive plot as any sort of put-down. Rather it is my belief that the film beautifully captures the world-view and perspective of a pre-adolescent boy, the film's protagonist and primary participant. I wrote in the book that "every bizarre event that happens in Phantasm can easily be interpreted as having occurred in one of the boy's twisted dreams/nightmares."
In the movie's sad "real life," depicted momentarily at the film's conclusion, Mike's beloved older brother Jody is -- like the boy's parents -- dead and gone. Mike is pretty much alone, at least in terms of biological family.

The preceding dream (the text of the film itself...) in which Jody is alive and well may thus be interpreted as a disturbed kid's anxiety dream. In that lengthy "phantasm," Michael represses knowledge of Jody's death and imagines he can conquer mortality. His enemy is Death Itself, the Tall Man. Michael destroys him; he buries the Tall Man in the ground with his brother's able assistance. But when he wakes up from this heroic dream, Michael sees that his victory was imaginary, illusory; that in real life, death is never defeated. Jody recedes into the wind...growing smaller and smaller in the imagination (and in the frame too...) because of his status as dead. The unchangeable fact here is that Jody is the one who is gone, not some menacing monster.

Mike can't play the hero in real life...only in his dreams. In the film's epilogue, the Tall Man returns for one last attack and that's because in real life death always returns too. The Tall Man takes Michael, and that act represents, perhaps, the ultimate childhood fear. Of being dragged into the darkness of death, kicking and screaming, with no one to help.

Throughout the film, Coscarelli transmits the idea of Mike running away from reality (and into dreams.) The notion is expressed in both the dialogue and the visuals. For instance, Mike literally can't keep up with his brother. "Jody's leaving soon," he notes (rather cryptically...) in the dream, processing his brother's real life death as but a "departure" that he might be able to stop.

And, in one particularly affecting shot, Mike's feeling of abandonment and isolation is portrayed in starkly visual terms. Mike follows desperately after Jody as his older brother rides down a long road on a bike...oblivious to his brother's pursuit. This moment embodies the idea that Jody is on a one-way journey, moving away from Mike. Forever. Mike can run and run, but he can't catch up with Jody. Jody is dead.

In Michael's powerful, movie-long dream, The Tall Man represents inexplicable, baffling adulthood; or even, simply, adult knowledge. For instance, when The Tall Man first appears, he is explicitly connected to the adult mystery of sex. Jody and one of his friends are "lured" into the grave yard by a sexy siren...really the Tall Man (shape-shifted to appear as a gorgeous female). Mike doesn't understand sex, and so he imagines it as something mysterious and fearsome...manifested in his dream as the Tall Man, also the vehicle of Death. After all, both sex and death threaten to take Jody away from Michael, right? Both are elements of life that a child isn't equipped to understand.

The Tall Man is thus the personification of fears surrounding growing-up. Encoded in that term "growing up" is the realization of one's own mortality; and sex, among other things. The Tall Man symbolizes the mysteries of human life that Mike doesn't yet understand...but deeply fears. Further enhancing the dream metaphor, The Tall Man seems to appear frequently in Michael's bedroom...the very place where a boy will worry about death or first grope with the mysteries of sex.

2.) Imagine There's No Heaven, Or He Doesn't Just Kill You:

I have long subscribed to the belief that many of the scariest "monsters" in horror history (on both TV and in film) are those beings that don't actually kill their victims.

What they do to their victims is -- actually -- far worse than death, and promises lasting, spiritual suffering well beyond a quick mortal demise.

Consider the Creeper, in Jeepers Creepers (2001), a monster who steals body parts to replenish his own life. The owners of those appropriated body parts eternally become a part of the horrifying monster; forever at one with Something Evil.

Or recall the cybernetic Borg on Star Trek.: The Next Generation...they don't want to kill you; they want to use your body and your mind against you, and make you serve an "evil" cause as a drone.

Again, that loss of identity, that loss of sovereignty, is much scarier than dying by a painful (but quick...) machete wound.

The Tall Man fits very well into this category of villain or monster. When mortals die, we learn quickly in Coscarelli's films, they are revived (with yellow blood in their veins), crushed to diminutive proportions and re-purposed as slaves, as dwarves on the Tall Man's barren, arid world (which could be Hell, really). The Tall Man thus harvests our human bodies, making us all slaves to his insidious, inhuman agenda.

An eternity spent as a monstrous, prowling, subservient dwarf isn't exactly something to eagerly look forward to, especially if you've been indoctrinated to believe the Kingdom of Heaven awaits in the after-life. As the Tall Man acknowledges in Phantasm II (1988): "You think that when you die, you go to Heaven. You come to us!" Thus the iconic character is frightening to audiences because he promises that the mystery of death is not a mystery at all, but a doorway to eternal servitude, eternal damnation in sub-human form. Yikes!

3.) There's Something Scary About Old People:

Technically, it's called Gerontophobia. And no, it's not nice, and it's not really fair...or even remotely rational.

But -- at least for a very young person, like Mike --- there's something deeply unsettling about very old people. Their ways seem alien. Their values are not yours, necessarily. They seem angry and temperamental. They want you to stay off their lawn, and they always seem to be hovering behind you, watching, making sure you are following "the rules." A kid might even note that they smell of death; they have one foot in the grave already...

Old people are not, in some cases (perhaps because of dementia, or extreme pain...), the trustworthy, capable, helpful adults a young child is familiar and comfortable with (think teachers, and hopefully, parents too.)

Some old people actually look scary too, like witches or monstrous crones. And that's part of The Tall Man's Tao: his frightening appearance as an angry, unapproachable, even inappropriate old man. Even his trademark shout, "Booooy!" is coded specifically to terrify the young; to spark a fear of the elderly...the dying.

4.) Last But Not Least...He's Got Balls:

As far as horror bogeymen go, an important rule is this: the right tool for the right job.

Freddy has his finger knives, Jason has his machete, and Leatherface has his trusty chainsaw.

The Tall Man too is associated with a weapon and, appropriately, it's a literal nightmare weapon (reflecting the dream-like/phantasm nature of the films).

That weapon, of course, is the famous silver sphere, the sentinel...the ball. Many of the franchise's most memorable and gruesome scenes involve these chrome, flying, autonomous things. These devices home in on an unwitting victim, sprout blades, embed themselves in the human skull...then drill into it. Finally, they spit out a torrent of blood, until the victim is dead, dead, dead. The balls are fast, utterly unreal, and even sentient.

In short, the chrome, reflective spheres are among the most inventive horror weapons ever devised and as the keeper of the balls (so-to-speak), the Tall Man controls them.

Personifying death and mortality (through his aged appearance), boasting a tragic past (as we see in 1998's OblIVion), procuring slaves and harnessing the power of the bloody ball, the Tall Man walks tall in the imagination of horror fans. Watching Angus Scrimm play this immortal character, one feels that, like Death, the Tall Man has always been with us...and always will.

Or, as the character himself might note: "The funeral is about to begin..."


  1. Being one of the few horror franchises I've viewed in entirety (and enjoyed), it always makes me smile to see Phantasm and The Tall Man written of in print. I always felt the films stood out somewhat from the more, let's say 'physical' of the genre; Standing closer to Elm Street than Crystal lake, if you will.

    And here - is another reason why I come here to read. In the Phantasm(s), I enjoyed the Tall Man, the spheres, the little touches of science fiction sprinkled throughout, the 4-barreled shotgun, the active struggle against the inevitable, jump-in-your-seat cliffhanger of an ending, and even more reasons to make a mausoleum and cemetery scary. I had never, however, looked at reading the first film as primarily a dream state. That's just fascinating, and a lot more satisfying than simply tossing bits of the film into the large genre box of 'that's a horror thing, it's a movie thing, it's not supposed to make sense'.

    Coming on the tail of watching Inception last night, this definitely will have to go back on my watch list.

  2. Woodchuckgod: Thank you for a lovely comment (made my day, already...).

    I agree wholeheartedly with your description of Phantasm; as pointing closer to Elm Street than Crystal Lake.

    There's definitely a surreal, dream-like and cerebral aspect to the film franchise (as well as the fun gore and action/violence, as you correctly note...).

    To me, the original film -- with its haunting score and intense focus on young Michael -- is really a treatise on death (and the utter unacceptability of death...) as told through the perspective of a troubled, sensitive child.

    In some ways -- despite the drills to the skull -- it's almost innocent, about the way a kid turns the notion of mortality into a phsyical "monster" he has to fight and defeat (in his dreams). It's very child-like, and magical stuff, after a fashion.

    And reading the body of the film as a dream, with only a scene here or there "awake" before returning to the nightmare, brings an umbrella of unity to some of the odder, bizarre moments that don't seem to conform to our sense of reality. I think the reading least I hope so!

    I believe Phantasm is really a great film for this very reaches that apex that only select horror films seems to be a fantasy -- about one thing (a monster stealing the dead from local cemeteries...) -- but it is actually very deeply about us; about an important aspect of human nature...our childish wish to beat death; and to avoid an unpleasant reality, or unpleasant fact about reality.

    I really, really love the original Phantasm (and enjoy the rest of the films), as you can probably tell.

    Thank you so much for your comment! I hope you enjoy your re-watch (and let me know how the dream metaphor holds up for you...)


  3. SteveW12:53 PM

    As usual, your writing makes me want to check out a movie (or in this case series) that I missed. Don't know exactly how I missed it, considering that most of my high school friends saw the first PHANTASM on initial release.

    Done right--i.e, with the right visual approach--dream logic in a horror film is very effective. Certainly a lot of De Palma and Argento has a dream logic to it. As do cult favorites like CEMETERY MAN (those Italians again!) and LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH. Not to mention true classics like Dreyer's VAMPYRE and Murnau's NOSFERATU.

    Part of my problem with INCEPTION is that I think Nolan is too doggedly literal-minded to do dreams right. I didn't find that film evocative of dream logic at all.

  4. Outstanding post! I've been more or less obsessed with Phantasm from the moment I first laid eyes on it. It's one of the few surrealistic films where I actually wanted to delve further and further into the mythology and find answers when I'd normally just be satisfied churning theories around in my brain's audience of one. I love the inexplicable weirdness of the first film, but never got angry when Coscarelli expanded the mythology in the sequels.

    Angus Scrimm seems like such a wonderful, enthusiastic, and sweet person. Hard to believe he is one of the horror world's most feared villains.

    Have you gotten a chance to watch Satan Hates You? He, along with Reggie Bannister have some good roles in it.

  5. Steve W: Great comment! "Dream logic" in cinema is indeed a powerful thing (Lynch is particularly good with it I believe...), and the original Phantasm has it in spades. There's a sense of a different reality in Phantasm. The movie is creepy and yet in some odd way, whimsical. It's hard to dissect the alchemy...but it works. I recommend it strongly.

    Chris Hallock: Thank you for great comment as well. You have a fantastic descriptor for the original phantasm in your remarks: "inexplicable weirdness." I couldn't have said it better. That's precisely what it is; and getting the vibe, I tie it to dreams, which I think is fair, and enhances appreciation of the film.

    I haven't seen Satan Hates You, but now that I know Scrimm and Bannister appear in it, I've got to! Thanks for the heads up.

    Best wishes to all,

  6. Great point on how there are many "fates worse than death" in the better horror films JKM.

    The fate of the undead in "Phantasm" has always left me very uneasy...easily one of the creepiest aspects of one of the creepiest films of all time.

  7. Hi Indianhoop!

    Yes, death is bad...but what the Tall Man does to people is infinitely worse. Like you, I have always found the undead of Phantasm very creepy; very unsettling.

    The idea that you can recognize these monstrous, unthinking dwarves as your former human friends gives me the shudders...

    Thanks for the comment!


  8. What a great analysis of what makes the PHANTASM films and the Tall Man so effective as horror films. They play on nightmare logic in a way that the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films don't. With the exception of the first ELM STREET, I never really felt scared for the protagonists but definitely in the first 2 PHANTASM films I really feared for the lives the main characters and wondered if they would be able to escape the Tall Man. Plus, the killer silver ball is one of the most memorable (and nasty) weapons in the horror genre.

  9. I'm late to this, but I agree with J.D. on this one. If you've seen Angus Scrimm's interviews, he's the kindest, most sincere of gentlemen. Put him in this series, without much make-up, and he's evil incarnate! And those damn flying balls! What lunatic thought up that simple (almost elegant) mechanism and unleashed it do such vicious mayhem? The whole series was pretty damn clever. Great examination, John.

  10. Hello my friends,

    J.D.: Angus Scrimm is so great -- I agree, a total gentleman. Then you set him loose in Phantasm (or on Alias, as McCullough...) and he's just this dark, imposing force of evil. Amazing.

    Le0pard13: I agree with you too, on Scrimm, and the elegant (and evil simplicity...) of those silver balls. I remember the first time I saw the movie it was just this descent into dream imagery, dream horror.

    Thank you both for the comments...


  11. Hey.

    First let me tangent and defend the Nightmare series from JD and then tie it all back! I felt that the nightmare sequences in almost all (not all, but almost) the Nightmare flicks were the saving graces in some of the lesser entries and for the most part maintained an environment of fear because they focused on specific social fears that many of us, whether we admit it or not, have. Like the thin socialite's daughter in Nightmare 5 who eats herself to death or the deaf boy in 6 who wants to hear so bad but when he does even the smallest pin drop is as loud as a bomb. Or in Nightmare 4 where the protagonists can't progress forward (the dreaded can't do simple things dream) because they keep getting transplated BACK to the place they started.

    And this ties into JKM's review because while lesser horror entries seem to aim for more visceral terror that aim for jump scaring or to satisfy a designer's wet dream, things like Nightmare and Phantasm go for specific, haunting ideas that we can all relate to. Phantasm, as JKM says, is a 12 year old boys dream/nightmare sequence: a clearly black hat villain, amazingly inventive and seemingly impossible horrors like the ball and the realms and such, and the fears 12 year olds worry about like abandonment and loneliness. Without the depth of adult observation, some 12 year old fears are larger then understanding and go beyond interpretation.

    Excellent review as always JKM. Inquiry: I've only seen Phantasm I (rented) and II (watched on Joe Bob Brigg's Monstervision). Are III and IV worth watching at all???

  12. Will: Some very interesting comparisons and points there. I agree that Elm Street and Phantasm are apples and oranges to some degree. The Phantasm series at the very least, has a more tightly woven and consistent sense of mythology: the movies don't contradict each other. (I love in the Elm Street series how in Part III the old sanitarium is open and in business, but by Part V -- like two years later -- they say it has been closed down for forty years!)

    The point is, both franchises have their merits. I enjoy both, very much.

    Phantasm III and Phantasm IV are entirely worth your time, assuming you know what you're getting into.

    Part III and Part IV are very low-budget, direct-to-video features. And honestly, after writing Horror Films of the 1990s (coming soon from McFarland...) I can say with some degree of certainty that these Phantasm sequels are better than 99% of all such DIV productions from that decade. But they are cheap, and a little goofy...but also strangely affectionate, and emotion-provoking.

    Truthfully, I got a real kick out of them, even though the final film was literally shot on a shoestring, and it shows. If you can accept the limitations that were imposed on the franchise, the last two films work surprisingly well. The final film may even give you a lump in your throat. Not an epic, spectacular ending, but a small, intimate one that makes you remember the beginning. Odd, individual, and fun.