Halloween 2016: Phantasm (1979)



In some fashion direct or indirect, all horror films grapple with the ultimate human fear, mortality.  But Don Coscarelli’s landmark 1979 horror Phantasm is a film veritably obsessed with the cessation of life, and also the terrible grief that accompanies death for those left behind on this mortal coil. 

In fact, it is not at all difficult to interpret the film’s events as one teenager’s powerful subconscious fantasy, his sublimation and re-direction of grief as he attempts to make sense of all the death happening around him, in life and in his immediate family.  The film’s almost childish tale of a Fairy Tale monster -- a witch-like “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) who enslaves the dead -- is actually but 
Michael’s (Michael Baldwin’s) self-constructed mythology regarding mortality. 

Simply put, it’s easier to deal with that orderly “horror” – a world of monsters and villains and happy endings – than one in which those Michael loves are lost and gone forever.

Surreal and haunting, Phantasm confidently moves and tracks like almost no other horror movie ever made.  It vacillates between scenes of outright terror and ridiculous comedy, and treads into terrains not exactly…realistic.  The universe as expressed in the film doesn’t seem to conform to order or rationality as we understand it, frankly.  But importantly, all of this disorder, chaos and pain feels as though it arises from a deep understanding and sympathy for childhood.  The film’s trademark soundtrack composition -- which repeats frequently and effectively -- adds to the overwhelming sense of a lullaby or trance, one we can’t quite awake from.

So many horror fans (rightly) love and cherish Phantasm because of the horror, because of the flying silver “ball” and the gore it creates in its monstrous wake.  Yet for me the film is actually a horror character-piece of the highest magnitude, and actually a tender, even whimsical reminder of how the world might appear to a sad and lonely adolescent. 

 “I just don't get off on funerals, man, they give me the creeps.” 

The shadow of death hovers behind Michael.
In Phantasm, a lonely kid, Michael, investigates the creepy-goings on at Morningside Funeral Home.  In particular, the Tall Man seems to be ensnaring young, able-bodied men with a sexy siren, and then leading them to their bloody doom.  But death is not the end of their journey, Michael learns.  Instead, he discovers that the Tall Man is crushing down the corpses to half-size and reviving them as slave labor for his arid, Hellish other world.

Michael attempts to convince his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), of this bizarre truth, but Jody is burned out and skeptical.  Since their parents died, he’s been caring for Michael full time, and wants to leave town.  Michael knows this, and is deathly afraid of abandonment.  But soon, however, Jody is swayed by Michael’s evidence and together with a friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the trio launches a frontal assault on the Tall Man…

After the Tall Man is defeated, Michael awakes from the long dream to face hard reality.  Not only are his parents dead, but Jody is gone too.  He died in a car crash.  Now Reggie promises to take care of him, but the specter of death is not yet gone from Michael’s life…

“First he took Mom and Dad, then he took Jody, now he's after me.” 

Surrounded by the trappings of death
In terms of psychology, we now understand that an adolescent’s understanding of death rivals that of an adult.  In other words, an adolescent is old enough to understand the idea of permanence, and also the idea that anyone, not just the very old, can die at any time.  Furthermore, we know that in many cases, adolescents react more intensely to death than adults do.  And lastly, that the two most difficult deaths for a teenager to cope with are those of his parents and that of a sibling. 

In some instances, however, teenagers do not react to such losses as expected, with tears and outright declarations of sadness or pain.  Instead, they may not confront their grief at all.  Rather they sublimate and deny it, even crafting complex stories and belief systems around the death of their loved ones, such as the fiction that they are somehow responsible or guilty for those deaths.

We are confronted in Phantasm, then, with a young protagonist, Michael, who has seen the death of both his parents, and also -- as we learn at film’s end -- the death of his brother, Jody.   Instead of coping outright with the grief, however, his mind has fashioned a phantasm, a dream which to attempts to “re-order” his disordered life.  In this story, Michael and Jody are still a team, defeating monsters and solving the mystery of Morningside.  In this dream, death has become embodied in a person, the Tall Man, and as something that Michael, importantly, can combat and defeat.

Michael (left, background) is left behind, while Jody heads...where?
But even in the dream, Michael can’t quite completely banish the specter of mortality, the fear of being left behind.   In one scene, we see him running in the background of a frame, attempting to keep up with Jody (on a bike). But Jody, oddly unaware, pulls further and further away.  In this evocative shot, the camera  leaves Michael in the dust.  Soon he stands alone in the frame, and it’s clear his fear is real.  He is being left behind.  Growing smaller and smaller in the frame.  “It’s Jody again,” he notes at one point, “I found out that he’s leaving.

In terms of grappling with the idea of death, the film proper actually opens with it, as a friend of Jody’s named Tommy is killed.  Michael observes the funeral from a distance, with a set of binoculars.  This particular shot stresses the importance of how Michael sees, and later scenes in the film are similarly composed to reflect the same thing: effectively highlighting Michael’s eyes (as he sees through a crack in an open coffin, for instance) as he views the world.  This visual framing is our cue that the film itself is Michael’s “phantasm,” his way of perceiving and interpreting the things he experiences. 

How Michael sees #1
And what does Michael see?  Again and again, the film depicts not just a fear of death, but the various and sundry trappings of death.  We see mortuaries, caskets, funerals, hearses, graves and other elements of what could only be termed, politely, “the death industry.” 

As adults, these things are accepted, perhaps reluctantly, as part of the landscape, and don’t necessarily have the power to frighten or disturb us.  We know such things exist, and we deal with them. But because Michael is obsessed with death, the film reflects his fetish most vividly, creating a world where the trappings of death are visible and prominent in nearly every frame, and suffused with a dark malevolence.  The funeral director is a monstrous crone (The Tall Man), the graveyard is a place of darkness, danger and entrapment.  The hearse is a vehicle for the enslaved “dead” dwarves employed by the Tall Man, and so on.  The Tall Man hovers in the background of some shots like the Angel of Death himself.  He marshals all these familiar trappings of death and renders them frightening once more.  They serve him.

How Michael sees #2
The implication here is, perhaps, that as adults we accept the “death industry” and its trappings. But for Michael, they symbolize constant, nightmarish reminders of what he has lost.  They are monoliths constantly highlighting the unacceptability and permanence of death, yet hardly noticed by adult eyes.  Michael has not yet matured to the point where he accepts the presence of death in his life.

I’ve written above that some aspects of Phantasm seem childish or childlike.  This is not an insult or a put-down.  For instance, Michael and Jody easily destroy the Tall Man, essentially trapping him in a hole in the Earth (a mine shaft).  That this simple, almost cartoon-styled plan works against a Dedicated Agent of Evil reminds us that we are dealing with a child-like intelligence as the primary mover of the action.  We are seeing Michael’s dreams made manifest before our eyes.  We can destroy the devil by burying him up on that mountain! 

How Michael sees #3
It doesn’t make a lot of rational sense unless we consider the action a child’s phantasm.  Similarly, the whole vibe of the movie is something akin to what I described in Horror Films of the 1970s as a Hardy Boy’s mystery where “something sinister” is happening at the local cemetery.   To describe this almost innocent quality of the film another way, I would say that Phantasm understands the adolescent mind, and crafts successfully and movingly a world around that perspective.

I believe this interpretation is borne out, to some degree, by the depiction of the film’s deadly siren, the Lady in Lavender.  She is a mysterious figure promising sex but delivering death.  She is very much a product of a fearful teen’s imagination and fear.  That teen does not yet understand what sex is, or the power of sex as a desire and appetite.  Instead, the “unknowns” of sex become, in the film, disturbingly intermingled with death.  The moans of love-making transform, in short order, into the groaning of a monster lurking in the nearby bushes.  Both sex and death are things that seem to take Jody away from his brother, after all.

Although all the Phantasm sequels surely preclude the possibility that this film is but the dream of a sad, grief-ridden teenager, the interpretation tracks admirably if you take Coscarelli’s original as a standalone effort and not part of a “franchise.”  As I have also written before, I believe this quality of the film (as a teen’s dream) is also made clear by Michael’s unbelievably good survival rate.  He tangles with the Tall Man and his minions no less than four times in the film, and always emerges unscathed, only to prove, finally, victorious in his campaign.  I submit that this “luck” too is a reflection of a youthful mentality: the belief that you are somehow immune to death.  Furthermore, it reflects the idea that we all place ourselves at the center of our fantasies, as the heroes in our own adventures.  Here, Michael deals with death by becoming a superhero of sorts, one who conquers long-lived monsters and solves mysteries.


Our last, wistful view of Jody, from a distance and bound for parts unknown.
I admire the film because its distinctive visuals so beautifully mirror Phantasm's themes.  In some shots, the Tall Man seems to be the shadow of death himself.  And in one haunting composition, Michael sees Jody for the last time (before waking up into a world where he is dead).  Jody stands high in the frame, atop a mountain.  Jody stands on that pinnacle, a heavenly light (like angel wings?) behind him.  It's the distant, final view of a man going to the great beyond, and Coscarelli's imagery captures it with wonder and a degree of lyricism.

Charting the disturbed mental landscape of a grieving boy, Phantasm gets to a very simple and emotional truth about human existence.  It is often easier to live in a fantasy world (even one with monsters, dwarves, giant flies, and alien worlds…) than it is to face head-on the fact that, in the final analysis, we are all going to lose our loved ones.  Because it deals so sensitively and succinctly with that tough, hard-to-accept idea, Phantasm always gets to me on some deep level.  The film makes me ask myself an important question: Why do I like and enjoy horror movies so much?  Why do I love being scared and challenged by them?

With films like Phantasm, am I actually preparing myself, in some way, for the inevitable?

Perhaps so

I know only this: I deeply fear death, and sometimes obsess on it, both in relation to the end of my own life, and deaths of those I love.  In Phantasm Michael reveals one way to grieve, or perhaps to escape grieving.  Phantasm makes me wonder about my own solution to the Phantasm equation.  Am I going to be that boy, left behind on the bike while others leave me behind? Or will the Tall Man show up for me first?

At some point, the Tall Man is going to look all of us straight in the eye, commend us for a good game -- now finished -- and remind us it is time to die.  You don’t have to be a teenager to fear that day, and in some way Phantasm helps us to explore meaningfully the ideas of grief, loss, and the inevitability of death.

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