Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Universal Monsters Halloween Costumes (Ben Cooper)

The Films of 1988: Pumpkinhead

Bolted doors and windows barred,

Guard dogs prowling in the yard,

Won't protect you in your bed,

Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead.

- Pumpkinhead (a poem by Ed Justin)

A contemporary Grimm Fairy Tale, the 1988 horror film Pumpkinhead (directed by the late Stan Winston) is also something more than that general description implies. The film actually serves as an example of modern, cinematic folklore. In the Jungian sense of that term, it contends explicitly with the human unconscious and human archetypes.

Pumpkinhead is the story of kindly Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen), a man and father who sees his young son, Billy (Matthew Hurley) recklessly killed by a group of irresponsible tourists: dirt bikers led by the brutish Joel (John Di Aquino).

After his boy's death, Harley visits an old witch, Haggis, seeking help. 

Alas, even this sorceress cannot raise the dead. 

Instead, the old crone suggests a wicked alternative: Ed can make his vengeance manifest in the form of an invincible demon called Pumpkinhead. Ed once saw that very monster in childhood, in 1957, and so he follows the witch's instructions for conjuring this monstrous Personification of Vengeance.

Before long, Pumpkinhead goes on a vicious murder spree -- a surrogate for Ed -- attacking Joel and all his friends and eventually murdering them in horrible, merciless ways.

However, Ed soon begins to see the nature of the terror he has willfully unleashed on Earth, sharing Pumpkinhead's "sight" at critical moments. 

Ed then comes to the realization that he must pay the ultimate price to curtail the evil he has loosed on the world...

When discussing folklore, Swiss philosopher Carl Jung pinpointed specific universal character archetypes, many of which are given a new life in this Winston horror film. 

Henriksen's Ed Harley, the film's protagonist, is a manifestation of the Ego

He is a man of gentleness and reason, who has repressed his "emotional" past (the vision of Pumpkinhead) and now lives in relative seclusion with his son, far from the dangers of noisy city life. 

We have every reason to believe that Ed is a "good" salt-of-the-earth type character, at least until his quest for justice turns punitive; becoming a quest for vengeance.

Pumpkinhead himself is another Jungian archetype: "The Shadow." He is the opposite of the Ego (Ed) but with qualities nonetheless present in the Ego, only ones not identified or openly acknowledged. 

In other words, Pumpkinhead is representative of Ed's buried, undetected blood lust; his vengeance personified. These blood-thirsty, merciless qualities have always been present in Ed, we must believe, but without a catalyst (the death of his beloved boy), they would never have boiled to the surface and found expression.

Ego and Shadow are connected in another way too: inside the very shape of Pumpkinhead. The beast soon begins to take on the facial features of the man who raised him: Ed. So part of Ed -- the ugly part -- is literally inside the demon. They Ego and the Shadow share "sight," they share a face, and they share a destiny: damnation.

Finally, we come to Billy, a blond-haired little boy. 

He represents an archetype that Jung believed was present in every one of us: The Child

The child symbolizes innocence, naivete, the future, tomorrow, even treasure. To Ed, Bill is indeed the greatest treasure in the material world; the innocent thing to be protected from an increasingly cruel, loud, and fast modern world. 

Billy is Ed's hope for a better future, and Pumpkinhead features many beautiful, sweet scenes (including one at a kitchen table...) that involve Ed and little Billy -- father and son -- living their life of togetherness and fellowship. 

Though Henriksen is often called upon to play sinister roles, it is his tender, fatherly side that resonates most powerfully with me, as both a viewer and a film critic. It's a side you often see on display in two of his best productions: Pumpkinhead and Millennium

And it's also a side that brings forward, with great power (and emotion...), the scope of Ed Harley's loss; the scope of his pain and suffering. 

With Billy gone, Ed has lost his hope for the future; his purpose for living. He has lost all his tomorrows. So when Ed seeks vengeance, the audience is definitely on his side. We know he's a good man; we understand what he's lost and we -- with him -- demand justice.

But folklore -- again in the Jungian definition of that word -- always serves a specific moral purpose.

It excavates the unconscious, the very instincts and failings of mankind as a species. It intentionally deals in stereotypes and absolutes so as to make a cogent point, and in Pumpkinhead that is indeed the case.

 Billy is not just sweet...he is angelic. 

And Pumpkinhead is not just Vengeance made manifest, but the epitome of Vengeance Made Manifest: an ugly, snarling, horrible, murderous, unstoppable, sacrilegious demon. 

Ed is not just tortured, but he is tortured in a Biblical sense, like Job himself. 

The point of Pumpkinhead, of course, is that "two wrongs don't make a right," and that vengeance is not the same thing as justice. 

Vengeance is something else entirely: the unquenchable need to inflect some greater pain on a person who has wronged you. The Bible writes of "an eye for an eye" because violence tenfold against your enemy was too draconian, too horrible. That's explicitly Ed's sin in Pumpkinhead, seeking an out-of-proportion punishment for the crime of murder. 

But our emotions are engaged in this remarkable horror film -- and our imaginations are stirred -- by the universal, almost stereotypical nature of the beautiful child, the bereaved Dad, and the monster from Hell.

Like the best horror films ever made, Pumpkinhead remains determinedly anti-violence (and anti-vengeance) -- in much the same manner as Wes Craven's misunderstood Last House on the Left (1972) -- because it it points to a painful and often forgotten human verity: vengeance solves nothing

And the cost to the person pursuing vengeance is often, literally, his soul.

In Pumpkinhead, Ed is forced to reckon with the fact that he has called an unearthly presence to right an earthly wrong. His response to a tragedy was understandable, but ultimately out-of-proportion. The teens in the films are careless and rude, and they did kill Billy in that incident. But Joel -- who is reckless and negligent -- is actually guilty of simply being an arrogant, thoughtless asshole. He never set out with malice to hurt anyone. 

The wronged Ed, by contrast, does proceed with malice. He calls a demon that doesn't discriminate between victims, that doesn't weigh evidence, but merely judges ALL the involved teens as guilty, despite their varying levels of responsibility. Again, this is not justice, and Ed learns that fact the hard way.

In Pumpkinhead, the Ego unleashes the Shadow, a force of incredible evil, and in process poisons his own soul. 

I always wonder: what would Billy think of his father's conjuration of the beast? Isn't Ed's decision to revenge Billy's death, actually, the very thing that destroys Ed's goodness? That destroys the innocence inside him?

These are the questions that the original Pumpkinhead contemplates with great style and intelligence, and it is rewarding to view a horror film in the decade of Death Wish-sequels, Chuck Norris, Dirty Harry and Rambo that advocates a stance against vigilantes and eye-for-an-eye "justice." 

Pumpkinhead sees no benefit, no reward, no healing in blood lust. Even more commendably, the film offers a didactic lesson: Ed sought revenge but didn't understand how how messy and monstrous revenge could be until faced with it through Pumpkinhead's inhuman, eyes.

Pumpkinhead is a beautifully crafted horror film, one routinely aglow with a cold, blue-gray palette, and heavy on oppressive atmosphere and atmospherics (including fog and mist). The film seems to exist outside any specific modern decade, granting it a timeless, universal quality that matches the theme about unchanging human nature. And the pumpkin patch where Pumpkinhead is born is not soon forgotten: a Stygian landscape of though vengeance has made the earth itself lifeless and decrepit.

So many horror films trade in black-and-white homilies, but Pumpkinhead even opens the door to ambiguity, particularly in the depiction of the sorcerer witch, Haggis. 

Essentially a "neighborhood witch" that expresses the tensions between country-folk and city folk and between the natural and supernatural worlds, her role is never exactly clarified in the screenplay or by director Winston. Essentially, she sends Ed to Pumpkinhead, but is it because she divines his purpose (vengeance) and wishes to expedite that purpose? Or is it because she seeks to destroy Ed's soul? Is she just using necromancy and other tricks of her trade to facilitate a "customer's" order, or is she a more sinister agent who gets something personal from the corruption of the innocent?

By utilizing Jungian archetypes (the Ego, the Shadow, the Child), and by focusing intently on a shared trait of our contemporary culture (the desire for personal revenge after a crime), Pumpkinhead dramatizes a universal tale about the human condition. The film's characterizations are "well-developed for the genre," (The Houston Chronicle, October 14, 1988), and the film has "heart...and a touch of sweetness" (The Daily Morning News), but more than that, it serves as a statement against the times in which it was crafted. It sees revenge as a wrong doubled; not as a wrong corrected.

Shakespeare wrote that "The rarer action is /In virtue than in vengeance." (The Tempest, Act V: Scene I), a plea for people to forgive their enemies rather than punish them. It's human nature, perhaps to hate those who hurt us, but Pumpkinhead is a reminder that revenge actually solves nothing. In presenting this moral point with archetypal clarity, Pumpkinhead serves ably as modern American folklore, not to mention thought-provoking cautionary tale.

Lunch Box of the Week: Universal Monsters

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Horror Movie Lexicon #7: Based on a True Story

From: The Last House on the Left (1972)
One long-standing trick of the trade designed to enhance further a horror film's sense of urgency and "closeness" to the audience is to suggest on-screen -- usually before the opening credits -- that the film is actually "based on a true story."  

From: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Of course, a whole lot of territory is covered in those words "based on," right?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is very loosely based on the story of serial killer Ed Gein, but the details of the narrative and the incredible presentation both arise from Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel and DP Daniel Pearl, among others, not from accurate historical details.

Even though as intelligent viewers we absolutely realize that the claim of being "based on a true story" is often total bunk, it works on our psyches anyway.

It gives us pause. It creates uncertainty.

It also makes us sympathize, and consider what it might be like to drive to rural Texas and run out of gas, or to accidentally pick up a gang of four criminals, etc. 

Do we fall for this "based on a true story" trick because we're all just suckers at heart?  Or is it because we have all heard atrocious but mesmerizing true stories that expose the dark side of human nature?

The horror movies that employ the on-screen "based on a true story" card deliberately play on this fact; the fact that the darkness inside us is very real, and present in reality.

From: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Sometimes, just a screen card's positioning at the front of the film suggests to us we're about to see a true story.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), for instance, both provide details about a story...but neither film actually out-and-out declares the story is true.

In this way, I suppose, the filmmakers' avoid an outright lie. We just think the films are claiming a truthful basis because that's what we are conditioned to expect.

In the horror movie, claims of veracity hook us, render us unsettled, and prepare us for what is to come. All the while, in the back of  our traumatized minds, we wonder: did this really happen? Could this even happen at all? 

Or even better: I'm sure as hell glad this didn't happen to me...

From: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

From: Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Monday, October 29, 2018

The View From My Screen #7

Which series? Which Episode?

The Twilight Zone: "Where is Everybody" (October 2, 1959)

Nearly sixty years ago, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) premiered on network TV (CBS) with this story: "Where is Everybody?"

Written by Serling and directed by Robert Stevens, "Where is Everybody?" follows the lonely trek of a wandering amnesiac, played by Earl Holliman. This adult man, dressed in military overalls, comes upon a lonely town called Oakwood. 

Although there are signs in the diner and at other locales of recent habitation, the man cannot find any other human...anywhere. He seems entirely alone, not just in Oakwood, but in the world itself.

Increasingly, the lonely man, fears he is going mad. 

Finally, he can't take it anymore, and the truth is revealed. He is actually Mike Ferris, an American astronaut-in-training who has just hit the panic button in an isolation tank on a military base.

For his long trip to the stars, Mike has been learning how to contend with being alone...for 484 hours and 36 minutes, precisely.  

But now, finally, he has cracked. The town and all its locations were delusions.

The next time there is a man alone like this, Mike's superior tells another officer, there will be no escape, no panic button as man faces "an enemy known as isolation."  

That enemy is a force waiting..."in the Twilight Zone."

The pop culture journey of The Twilight Zone begins with "Where is Everybody?" and with an opening narration from Serling which orients audiences to the fact that "The place is here. The time is now." He also alerts viewers to the fact that "this could be our journey."

Today, few critics or viewers would place this particular story -- basically a one-man show -- in the upper tier of series episodes, and yet "Where is Everybody?" still casts an incredibly creepy spell.  What the episode lacks in supporting cast members and pacing, it makes up for in symbol-laden imagery.  

Throughout the episode, for example, Ferris keeps encountering *almost* companionship.  He sees himself in a mirror at one point. So there is a "second" person to talk to, but it is merely a reflection. At another point, Mike encounters a woman, but again, not the companion he would seek. Instead, she is a mannequin.  He is like the mythic Tantalus, always near companionship but forever without real companionship.

The modern technology that should connect Ferris to other individuals also fails him throughout the episode. He attempts to use a telephone, but again, doesn't find the human connection he seeks. An operator's voice tells him that the number he has dialed is not working.  Failure, once more!

And in the diner, another bit of technology, a jukebox, is playing, but there is no sign of any other person for Mike to interact with.  The world seems to be spinning on, with all its devices, only devoid of human life.  One wonders if this could be Purgatory, Hell, or even a weird alien experiment.

Other symbols suggest Ferris's isolation throughout "Where is Everybody?". The audience sees the lonely town through his eyes, and through a barrier (a chain link fence) in one shot, suggesting his constant separation from home, safety, and the rest of the human race.

Intriguingly, it is via the mass media that Mike begins to put together the pieces of his mysterious past and his frightening present.  

For example, the only paperback on a kiosk is one titled "The Last Man on Earth," which seems to indicate (and be aware of...) his plight. And at the local movie theater, a film called "Battle Hymn" is showing. An image on the poster reminds Mike that he is in the air force officer.

A label on the movie poster reads "Now Playing," which is a remarkable self-referential touch. The TV audience watches the story of a U.S. military officer, while the movie theater shows a movie starring a military officer at the same time. Both stories are "now playing."  The poster and the label, "Now Playing" also function as a suggestion that Mike's plight, like a movie now unfolding, is not quite real.

These visuals very much carry the story, as do the sounds of life everywhere, which constantly haunt Mike.  It all feels very much like the dream that Mike fears he cannot awake from.

The episode's final reveal is not one of the more stunning ones in the Twilight Zone canon. The surprise ending (that the town is a delusion of a cracked mind) doesn't feel particularly special or shocking, even if it does foster empathy for the lone, wanderer. The audience learns that Mike has been wandering in his mind, not a real town, and that another astronaut will be doing the same thing soon, only for space.

A few weeks back, I wrote about the early Twilight Zone's focus on the advent of the space program, and that new and unknown age of space travel seems to be the basis for this story. Can man survive in space alone? For long spells?  Without the sights and smells and companionship of home? This episode is very concerned with that idea, noting that man possesses a hunger for companionship, and that such companionship is the "one thing we can't simulate" on a space journey.

It's a good, solid point, and one buttressed by the overall eeriness of the episode's central scenario, an abandoned town, and a man without memory, or company.  Yet with sixty years of hindsight it is also easy to see how this episode doesn't necessarily play to Serling's writing strengths.  This is a series that consists often of great dialogue and stunning narrative u-turns.  

"Where is Everybody" depends on visuals, not Serling's brilliant use of language, and the final u-turn is a little ho-hum in the context of the series, overall.

Again, there's cleverness in abundance here, especially in visual execution: the idea of the cracked mirror as a reflection of Ferris's cracked mind, for example. 

But if anything, "Where is Everybody?" is a potent reminder of the fact that at the beginning, The Twilight Zone still had some growing to do before becoming the classic it is recognized as today.

Next up: "One for the Angels."

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Advert Artwork: Universal Monsters

Sci-Fi Headline of the Week #7

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Films of 1979: Phantasm

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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

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 2016 -- 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. The late 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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Horror Lexicon #6: The Tour of the Dead

While dissecting what he called “Dead Teenager Movies,” the great movie critic Roger Ebert once came up with a pretty funny joke.  I’m paraphrasing a little, because I don’t remember the words exactly.  But the joke went something like this: “How do you know when a Dead Teenage Movie is over?”

The same dead teenager turns up twice.”

Turns out, this was a pretty apt observation. Though I don’t share Ebert’s disdain for the Slasher movie format, it’s undeniable that “The Tour of the Dead,” as I term it, has become a de rigueur component of the sub-genre.

In the so-called Tour of the Dead – universally set during the final act -- the resilient Final Girl flees from a terrifying mad-dog killer (usually masked), but the bloodied and savaged corpses of her friends and associates begin popping up in her path...sometimes quite violently.  

The sudden re-appearance of these murdered characters provides both authentic jolt scares for the audience, as well as horrifying obstacles to the character’s successful escape trajectory.

One of the earliest (and still best…) Tours of the Dead appeared in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and thus fits in with that film’s organizing principle: Halloween festivities, including trick-or-treat pranks. 

Here, poor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) visits the house across the street in suburban Haddonfield, and sees the body of her friend Annie (Nancy Loomis) posed on a bed…underneath a tombstone for Michael's sister, Judith.  

As Laurie recoils in horror from this macabre sight, other corpses pop out to terrify her, thus providing more than Laurie’s Halloween quotient of “one good scare.”  Laurie grows so terrified that she absently seeks retreat (walking backwards, a  big horror movie no-no…) at the doorway of a dark room…where the white-masked Shape emerges from impenetrable blackness.

I was happy to see in the 2018 Halloween, there is at leas a little tour of the dead in the final act, with Laurie Strode following a blood trail to a closet, and discovering a victim of "The Shape" perched inside.

The Friday the 13th movies of the 1980's quickly adopted the “Tour of the Dead” convention, starting in the first film. There Alice (Adrienne King) runs from nutty Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), and navigates a veritable battlefield of dead bodies.  

Steve’s corpse comes down swinging from a Camp Crystal Lake sign, for instance. Another corpse gets tossed through a window at Alice.  Yet another ends up hanged on a cabin door. 

For the sequels, it was a case of rinse-and-repeat as imperiled Final Girls ran similar corpse gauntlets before earning their victories.  

The Tour of the Dead convention is entertaining in these franchise films, but entirely devoid of the "trick or treat" context of Halloween it doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense. Mrs. Voorhees (and later Jason)  not only move from place to place killing camp counselors, but apparently pose the bodies, and calculate -- with precision accuracy -- what path the prey (like Alice) will ultimately take. 

What makes the conceit interesting (and a little funny...) in the original Friday the 13th is the way that director Sean Cunningham uses signage like "Danger," or "Keep Out" to subtly punctuate the gruesome exhibits on the Tour of the Dead.

In some fashion, the Tour of the Dead is is not just a final challenge to navigate and a visual symbol that the Final Girl is really and truly alone and therefore without help, but a bloody reminder (to the character and to the audience) that she was right about sensing danger. 

Where the other characters blissfully ignored warning signs of impending massacre, the Final Girl heeded them.  I’m aware that some critics may term the Final Girl’s equation as being something akin to “Survival of the Chaste-st,” but I propose something more along the lines of “Survival of the Smartest.”   

Final Girls – at least the good ones – boast insights, values, feelings, and behaviors that their more impulsive friends lack.  And by undergoing the Tour of the Dead, the Final Girl gets confirmation of her greatest character traits. She was right..and is still alive. Her friends were wrong and are now...ornaments.

In some Slasher movies, the Tour of the Dead is more ritualized than in others. In films such as Happy Birthday to Me (1981)  for instance, victims' bodies are propped up at a table (with a birthday cake…) and posed as if at an actual birthday party. 

In Tobe Hooper's brilliant The Funhouse (1981), the bloody corpses become part of the amusement park environs, therefore blending entertaining, funhouse-style horror with the real thing.  

As is the case with other elements of the horror lexicon, "The Tour of the Dead" reveals how the best horror directors deploy familiar conventions to good and inventive effect, while others just ape and imitate for the heck of it, for the sake of doing something that's expected, rather than what best tells the story. 

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...