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Getting Six Feet Deep with Phantasm (Part One)

My earliest exposure to the magic and mystery of horror films came at Top Hat Video, a now-defunct VHS rental joint in the town where I grew up. The town in question was a sleepy little suburb of Salt Lake City, and the vast majority of its residents were Mormon, which led to more strictures than one might think. One such stricture was the community’s approach to R-rated movies, which they viewed as not only morally questionable, but downright sinful (Utah is the state that gave us the Clean Flicks and Angel Vids controversies, after all). The upshot of all of this is that Top Hat had a special room in which they kept their spicier fare. In a normal town, such a room might be where the video store kept their softcore porno tapes; where I grew up, it was where R-rated content was kept, including the vast majority of horror movies.

My guess is that the staff at Top Hat could tell that I was a lost cause, already hellbound, and thus didn’t bother to shoo me out of their R Room, for which I am grateful. That room had all the best stuff, including the many films that were part of the horror boom of the 1980s. The R Room had a creaky wooden floor, which added to the ambiance in no small part. It was a little dusty and dimly lit: in other words, the perfect environment in which to pick a movie to rent or (in my case) just to browse, filing away titles for later exploration and (if I was lucky) viewing.

I remember being particularly fascinated by the cover of a movie called Phantasm. I was fairly sure, given its place in the R Room, that it was a horror movie. But aspects of it looked like they leaned more toward science fiction. The description on the box was utterly incomprehensible, but that was to be expected. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was in high school, that I actually watched it for the first time, and I was instantly in love. Phantasm is from a very specific time in horror cinema – the 70s, to be precise – when indie auteurs, obsessive weirdos, and low budget movies with big, often outlandish ideas ruled the Earth. This was the very beginning of the slasher boom that would soon pump millions of dollars into a nascent horror-industrial complex. The 70s were the dingy, creepy years that gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Hills Have Eyes, among others. But Phantasm had a few unique qualities that made it stand out from the pack.

First and foremost, even for a low-budget indie horror movie, it’s homely. There’s a funky, thrift-store energy that permeates the whole affair. The cast and crew of Phantasm were all amateurs. Don Coscarelli, who wrote, directed, and filmed Phantasm, would go on to direct The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep, and John Dies at the End (all excellent films with decent budgets), but in 1979, he was still laboring in obscurity. The actors in Phantasm were enthusiastic local ding-bats, and Coscarelli secured funding for the project from small-time backers in California. He also had help from his family: Coscarelli’s father contributed a bit of money to the effort, and his mother helped devise some of the special effects. The whole shebang cost an estimated $300,000 to make.

One of the reasons Phantasm is so beloved of horror goons is that these improvisational, less-than-slick qualities lend it a tremendous feeling of authenticity. The score (also by Coscarelli), while made with primitive synthesizers, draws on influences like Goblin and is arguably as good as anything John Carpenter wrote. The plot is surreal, and most reviewers use phrases like “hallucinatory” and “dream-like” to describe it. One of the action hero leads is “Reg” (Reggie Bannister), a balding, pony-tailed ice cream salesman (and guitarist!) who evolves over the course of four films into both a shotgun-wielding monster killer and the world’s creepiest middle-aged lothario. Hang on to that thought for now – I have Things to Say about good ol’ Reggie in the second part of this post.

These unlikely heroes face a menace that, while touching on notes that are familiar to horror fans – zombies, interplanetary menaces, a killer with a unique and gruesome murder weapon – but each of them is an off-kilter version of the trope in question. It’s a film that feels familiar without feeling formulaic, dream-like and surreal while also down-to-Earth, and, let’s face it, it’s just more fun than your average 70s no-budget slash-‘em-up, some of which can get downright nihilistic.

In the second part of this post, I’ll look at the Phantasm sequels, what the film’s influences were, and what its legacy is. Grab your quadruple-barreled shotgun and get the embalming table ready – next week, we’re going to dig even deeper!

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