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Getting Six Feet Deep with Phantasm (Part Two)

In my previous post on Phantasm, Don Coscarelli’s surreal 1979 journey into the cosmic horror of Morningside Cemetery and its sinister keeper, the Tall Man, I wrote that “one of the reasons Phantasm is so beloved of horror goons is that its improvisational, less-than-slick qualities lend it a tremendous feeling of authenticity.” That was true of the first film, which was made largely by amateurs and on a bare-bones budget. The authenticity question becomes more complicated when one looks at the four other films in the Phantasm franchise. There is still much to be learned from the films’ longevity and some of the unique elements that have given the franchise staying power and kept it, for all its warts and failings, fresh. As fresh, one might say, as a newly dead corpse given over to the tender mercies of Jedediah Morningside and his pan-galactic empire of shrunken zombie slaves.

The Phantasm philmography encompasses five films: Phantasm (1979), Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998), and Phantasm V: Ravager (2016). All but the final film in the series were written and directed by Coscarelli; Ravager was co-written by him (and directed by David Hartman). The enduring reign of Coscarelli is not the only through-line, as the films all feature the same protagonists, played by the same actors, which is extraordinary for a series that spans 37 years. The antagonist of the Phantasm-verse is, of course, the Tall Man, portrayed in all the films by Angus Scrimm, who was fifty-something when the first film was made, making his longevity particularly amazing.

When watching the sequels to Phantasm, it’s interesting to note what cultural phenomena were percolating in the zeitgeist when each one was made. Phantasm II followed the cult success of Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, and transformed guitar-shredding ice cream man Reggie into an Ash-esque kicker of undead ass (we’ll get back to Ol’ Reg in a moment). Phantasm III features a variety of Home Alone-esque traps set by a homicidal young boy: it was, of course, preceded by smash hits Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). You get the idea. I am not accusing Coscarelli of plagiarism per se, in any of these instances. He did lift the Gom Jabbar scene from Frank Herbert’s Dune (there is also a bar in the film called “Dune” – I think that Coscarelli would argue it was more of an homage than a life). Note that I say Frank Herbert and not David Lynch, because Phantasm preceded the theatrical release of Lynch’s version of Dune by five years – however, the book Dune has been around since 1965. In other words, the most you could probably accuse Coscarelli of is being a huge Dune fan (an affliction I share). Intentional or inadvertent, these overlaps aren’t something that I think qualifies Coscarelli as a hack or a thief. The Phantasm phranchise is a deeply homemade affair, and as such, the things that catch the eye of its creator tend to wind up embedded in the films.

Leaving aside the series’ cinematic influences for a moment, what’s even more interesting, to me, is the character – indeed, the character arc – of Reggie, AKA Old Reg. Reggie is a character that I initially set out to chop to pieces in my post(s) on Phantasm. His behavior toward women, starting in the third film, is beyond creepy: it seems borderline criminal in a few cases. Coscarelli’s view of women (at least as evidenced by these films) is dim at best. The Phantasm series is hardly alone in its gratuitous use of the female body. In fairness this is often done in Coscarelli’s movies by making women’s bodies objects of desire rather than objects upon which violence is visited – a preferable form of objectification if one must be objectified, I suppose, but that is cold comfort. I also intended to approach Reg as a store-brand Ash from Evil Dead: a quippy, comedic action-horror hero designed to appeal to the modern dudebro*.

However, upon revisiting the series, I found myself completely charmed by Reggie – almost against my will. His bald head and iconic ponytail, his penchant for improvised weapons and his believable use of power tools, his down-to-earth charisma: I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself, by the end of the films, almost as fond of him as I am of Ash. There is plenty to distinguish him from Bruce Campbell’s beloved former S-Mart employee; Reggie is (sorry Reg) significantly less handsome than Campbell, and his energy is, and I mean this in the best possible way, grubbier, even closer to blue-collar authenticity than Ash.

Perhaps the freshness and authenticity of the Phantasm movies come from the way that they employ time-worn tropes (so many tropes!) – but, in each case, the version that Coscarelli brings to the table is just a half-turn off from how it is usually dealt with in horror. Next week, in the thrilling conclusion of our voyage into Phantasm, we’ll look at those tropes, and what literary influences other than Dune may have gone into Phantasm’s surreal cauldron.

*: Reggie Bannister actually snagged a bit part alongside Bruce Campbell in 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, in which Bannister plays the rest home administrator.

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