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Getting Six Feet Deep with Phantasm (Part Three)

In two previous posts (you can find parts one and two here), I’ve discussed the unique time in American horror cinema that spawned the movie Phantasm, and commented on its sequels, cinematic influences, and the troublesome character of Ol’ Reg. Phantasm is a franchise that stands out from standard slasher fare because of its dream-like imagery, the unreliable reality of its characters’ experiences at any given time, and just generally because, in short, it out-weirds the competition. That’s a distinction that I have a hell of a lot of respect for.

As I pointed out last week, the Phantasm franchise did not spring from nowhere, nor do the films exist in a vacuum. In addition to the magpie-like affinity for cinematic influences that Don Coscarelli possesses, he also draws upon a deep tradition of the morbid, strange, and surreal in literature. Phantasm’s films take place in small, rural towns devastated by an incomprehensible and largely unexplained threat from another dimension – thank you, H.P. Lovecraft, bard of that genre. In addition to numerous stories of doom-plagued hamlets, Lovecraft penned the short story “Herbert West — Reanimator,” without which Phantasm would not exist.

A large portion of the action in the Phantasm films, it should be noted, takes place in mausoleums. That’s an interesting choice on Coscarelli’s part: above-ground burial not a way we commonly deal with the dead in the United States these days (with the exception of New Orleans). For that, and for much of the grim specter of the Tall Man, we can thank the unholy influence of Edgar Allen Poe. To reiterate from last week, the original film Phantasm paid lavish tribute to Frank Herbert’s Dune, integrating the Gom Jabbar scene before David Lynch’s film was extant – the town’s sole bar is even called “Dune.”

These influences could lead, in the hands of a bad writer or director, to a hacky film, one that offered no surprises and would simply tread and retread ground long-trod before. Instead, many tropes from horror and weird literature are employed, but in each case, Coscarelli’s version is weirder, off-kilter, a slightly warped or skewed vision of horror’s architecture. Heads up: a few mild spoilers will now follow.

The Tall Man employs zombies, which have been a horror fiction trope since 1929, but in a way radically different from other stories. Coscarelli’s zombies are crushed by the zombification process and transported via container to a desert planet with a red sky, where they toil for (as far as we know) the rest of eternity. They all wear little hooded robes, by the way, which led one wag at Gizmodo to refer to this scheme as “the zombie Jawa Industrial Complex,” a line that will forever make me laugh. The Tall Man, likewise, enjoys “slicing and dicing” Mike and Reggie’s friends and loved ones. Does he do this with a machete, a butcher knife, or even a glove with razor-sharp claws attached? He does not – instead, he uses mind control and telekinesis to liquefy the brains of his unlucky victims with the iconic Phantasm “sentinel sphere.” If you’ve never seen any of the scenes where they are unleashed, please enjoy. Even after 40 years, the experience of watching that first sphere-murder is visceral and jarring in both its nightmarish surrealism and its gory, body-horror realism.

It would be dishonest to say that the quality of the Phantasm sequels is consistent, or that all of them are “good,” in the strictest sense. But every one of them (even the mostly-terrible 2016 cash-grab Phantasm: Ravager) is weird, unpredictable, and worth watching. Of the horror franchises birthed in the late 70s and early 80s – especially the ones that were still cranking out sequels as of 2016 – Phantasm stands out as the super-weird, slightly horny uncle of the bunch. More than Halloween, more than Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th, Phantasm feels as though it were lifted whole from someone’s dream. Ultimately, I think that’s something we should be grateful to Don Coscarelli for – it’s not often that the world of dreams (and nightmares) successfully makes it into American horror cinema.

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