Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Monday, October 13, 2014

Phantasm (1979)

With Halloween less than two weeks away, I want to go back and examine the defining film that bridged my transition from the classic horror films of my youth like DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and THE WOLF MAN (1941) to when I was a teenager and the modern horror films that reanimated the genre in the late 1970's/early 80's like HALLOWEEN (1978), PIRAHNA (1978), and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). The film I'm talking about is PHANTASM (1979), a little known but beloved horror film among horror aficionados directed by a young Don Coscarelli.

Coincidentally, PHANTASM was released the same time that I discovered a horror film magazine called Fangoria that covered the new breed of horror films emerging from young talent like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George A. Romero, Joe Dante, and David Cronenberg. Fangoria had vivid color photos and behind the scenes stories on all the new ghoulish make up and splatter special effects plus nostalgic looks back at the classics of horror.

PHANTASM was one of the first films I recall that Fangoria did a piece about and the story and photos had all the horror iconography I love: cemeteries, mausoleums, hearses, a creepy Tall Man, and a gothic looking funeral home (which the earlier 1976 horror film BURNT OFFERINGS also used). Its craziest invention is a flying metal sphere that races around the mausoleum with blades that attach itself to a victim's skull and then drills into the brain, causing blood to spurt from the victim's forehead. Even my local Portland film critic at the time Ted Mahar gave the low budget PHANTASM some love and a mostly positive review.

I had not seen PHANTASM since I first sat in a mostly empty movie theater back in 1979. I was a little nervous as I prepared to view it again. It was like reuniting with your first love after thirty years. Would it live up to my first infatuation or would time not be kind to it. I've been so out of touch with my beloved PHANTASM that director Coscarelli has made three sequels since the original (everyone all together now -- PHANTASM II (1988), PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD (1994), and PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION (1998). I have not seen any of the sequels...yet.

But I'm delighted to say PHANTASM lives up to my teenage recollections. It is what it is: an inventive low budget horror film that doesn't take itself too seriously, entertains and scares, and gets a lot of production value out of very little. PHANTASM relates the bizarre occurrences around Morningside Funeral Home and its adjacent cemetery. Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury) and his best friend, Ice Cream truck vendor and part time musician Reggie (Reggie Bannister) attend the funeral for their friend Tommy (Bill Cone). Tommy was stabbed to death by the ghostly Lady in Lavender (sexy Kathy Lester) one night while having sex with the apparition in the cemetery. Jody and his younger brother Mike (Michael Baldwin) are still recovering from the recent deaths of their parents. Mike follows Jody around, afraid of losing his only surviving kin.

As the mourners depart, Mike, spying from some nearby bushes, notices the sinister funeral home director known as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) lift up Tommy's five hundred pound casket all by himself and place it in the back of the hearse. Mike begins to investigate the funeral home. He sneaks into the basement where he encounters bizarre dwarves in hoods and the before mentioned flying metal sphere that almost kills Mike, latching onto the mortuary Caretaker (Ken Jones) instead. Mike barely escapes with his life.

Mike, Jody, and Reg will uncover the Tall Man's shocking secret as they stalk the mausoleum hallways and basement trying to solve the death of their friend Tommy. Their sleuthing will reveal the Tall Man's secret. The Tall Man is harvesting the dead bodies from the funeral home and turning them into dwarf slaves (the corpses crushed into dwarf size by gravity), laboring in another dimension through a gateway behind one of the funeral home's doors. It might not make a ton of sense but writer/director Coscarelli handles his material with the right combination of humor and frights.

At its core, PHANTASM is the classic tale of the Boy Who Cried Wolf meets the haunted house on the hill (substitute funeral home for haunted house). Mike can't get his brother Jody to believe that weird things are going on up at Morningside Funeral Home. Not until Mike brings home one of the Tall Man's severed fingers (still moving in a small box) does Jody finally come around to believe his little brother. But writer/director Coscarelli upends his horror tale with a Sci-Fi subplot with a portal to another dimension and the malevolent flying metal sphere that seems to be protecting the Tall Man's secret purpose in the marble mausoleum. Coscarelli tosses in a bit of nudity, a cool muscle car (a 1971 Plymouth Barracuda), a car chase involving a hearse, explosions, and a great villain to satisfy the male teenage horror fan.

That great villain is Angus Scrimm who plays the Tall Man. Pretty much an unknown stage actor before moving to television and feature films, Scrimm seems born to play the part of the evil funeral home director. He's got the scowl, the comb over, and the standard black suit. Scrimm reminds me of a young Christopher Lee in his Hammer horror films days. The Tall Man appears to be a time traveler, showing up in antique photos from the turn of the century but clearly causing mayhem in the present. The Tall Man also has an alter ego as the beautiful but deadly Lady in Lavender, luring men to the cemetery with promises of sex before dispatching them with a dagger, turning their cadavers into shrunken slave dwarves.

Coscarelli also shows his directorial inexperience with PHANTASM as well. A gnarly demonic insect attacking Mike is amateurish (you can see the fishing line attached to the rubber insect).  The sound effects consist of too much crickets at night and howling wind (even when it's apparent there's no wind blowing). But Coscarelli's inventiveness and willingness to mix horror with the surreal trump a few gaffes by the young writer/director.  Coscarelli's next film THE BEASTMASTER (1982) would not be as universally praised as PHANTASM but Coscarelli has hung around in the horror genre, pumping out PHANTASM sequels and more recently, a new horror cult classic BUBBA HO-TEP (2002) which brought together Elvis Presley and an Egyptian mummy starring Bruce Campbell (EVIL DEAD).

I hadn't realized it but PHANTASM was one of several excellent modestly made horror films released by a company called Avco Embassy in the late 70's/early 80's. John Carpenter's THE FOG (1980) and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) as well as Joe Dante's THE HOWLING (1981) also were released by Avco Embassy. With slightly bigger budgets and better stories than the films that Roger Corman's New World Pictures were churning out, Avco Embassy was the king of Horror/Science Fiction for a brief period.

Coscarelli has said in interviews that he came up with the title PHANTASM from seeing the word in some of Edgar Allen Poe's writings. Michael's nightmare dream scenes as well as the scenes with the Lady in Lavender in the cemetery have a Poe like quality to them.  Coscarelli may not be held in quite as high esteem as John Carpenter, George A.  Romero, and David Cronenberg in the horror ranks but Coscarelli has carved himself a nice little niche in the genre with his PHANTASM series. Recent reports out of Hollywood indicate there is a new film in the series coming out in 2015 called PHANTASM: RAVAGER. You can't keep a good horror series down. But this Halloween check out the little horror film that started it all, a little terror gem called PHANTASM.

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