Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Phantasm


   Few movies are as casually weird as Phantasm are. I mean, sure, once you've plumbed the depths of cinematic weirdness, Phantasm might come off as kid's play... but still. It starts like every other 70's slasher movie- almost. A man is getting it on with a beautiful woman in a cemetery when right after the gratuitous tit-shot... she stabs him to death! Gasp! What follows is a beautiful story about a strange tall man-alien who steals corpses and shrinks them down to half size so he can transport them to another dimension in barrels to use as Jawa-like slaves. NOPE. NOTHING STRANGE HERE AT ALL.

   Can we just appreciate how out-there that concept is? But, moreover, there's maybe a hundred and one ways to turn that into a sensible movie, but framing it like a basic slasher flick is perhaps the weirdest way. Phantasm plays like the mid 70's fever dream nightmare of a horror junkie. Its got all the standard elements, but then proceeds to be absolutely strange as hell. Characters don't always behave normally, the plot takes massive leaps of logic, and in any other movie- these things would be serious flaws, but in Phantasm, it simply contributes to this dream-like feeling that you can't shake.

   All of this makes sense when you realize the movie was made by Don Coscarelli. The genius behind such cinematic excursions as The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End. Because of course Phantasm is his movie! Nobody else would've made something so bizarre- and oddly perfect too. Going back to the dream comparison, I'm sure everyone has realized how little sense even the most coherent dreams make once you start recalling them? That's exactly like Phantasm. From scene to scene, it follows and makes sense, but the big picture and the characters are so wonderfully odd that it truly does feel like a dream.

   Most dreams start from a place of familiarity, in Phantasm's case, it's a funeral. Rebel-with-a-Hemi, Jody, comes back to his sleepy little hometown for the funeral of his brother Tommy, and finds himself the legal guardian of his little-er brother, Michael- who is the template for the ultimate 80's hero-kid. So much so in fact that when my ten year old brother walked in on me watching his, he mistook it for season 2 of Stranger Things and was immediately disappointed that it wasn't. But, of course, I'm an amazing big brother and let him stick around to see a guy get a hole drilled in his head by a flying silver ball of death. Woo!

   The scene just happened to be there as said little brother was eyeing my TV. To avoid him getting nightmares, I paused it and showed him the 'seams' of the effect, from the little plastic tubing that squirts fake blood, to the fake patches of 'skin' made up to look like wounds. I miss this kind of detailing in horror movies. It doesn't always look super convincing in Phantasm, but it looks good enough to be shocking and fake enough to explain to my panicky kid brother. The perfect kind of practical effect.  Also, what's not cool about flying chrome spheres that drill holes in peoples head? Darth Vader was like, way behind the times here.

   Odd trio of protagonists aside (Mike, Jody, and their ice-cream-man pal, Reggie), the real star of Phantasm is undoubtedly the Tall Man, played by the iconic Angus Scrimm. He ended up being nearly 7 feet tall on camera, and combined with his bellowing voice and unnerving stare, Scrimm made the Tall Man an absolutely haunting onscreen presence. He's exactly the kind of nightmare villain that would only pop up in your dreams. The movie proceeds to play fast and loose with any kind of explanations whatsoever, further serving the dreamlike nature of the story. Who is the Tall Man? We never really know. And with how the movie toys with the concept of reality, at the end, all is anyone's guess.

   Phantasm is must-see material for horror fans, and despite how dated and disjointed it is, it's still a heck of a fun time. Severed fingers in boxes, jawa-like minions, flying chrome spheres of death, and a hell of a villain are just a few of the ingredients that make Phantasm a genre classic. Fully recommended.

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