Monday, October 1, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)

Note: Inspired by similar shenanigans happening over at Reddit and the Final Girl horror blog, I've decided to attempt my own month long horror viewing spree. Half of the list is set but the other half is still germinating (you'd never guess that this was an 11th hour decision right?). Some of the posts will be linked to discussions occurring on the same day at the one of the aforementioned websites and the rest will be my own personal choices. To get the ball rolling, I've decided to start with one of my all time favourite movies, regardless of genre, Don Coscarelli's cult classic, Phantasm

Like many of my favourite horror films, this film has (among other things) two particular qualities which I'm always on the look out for. Firstly, it's suffused with a richly atmospheric, dreamlike feeling, reminiscent of your strangest nightmares. Put another way, it's the kind of movie where, if you came home drunk or stoned late one Saturday night and started watching it in a borderline-catatonic daze before falling asleep, you'd probably be hard pressed upon waking the next day to remember whether it was a film or a dream.

Secondly, it has an unrestrained, everything and the kitchen sink approach to storytelling (or what Guillermo del Toro called the "Why da fack not?" philosophy - in his best approximation of an Italian accent -  when describing the films of Dario Argento); the kind of thing that makes you seem slightly bonkers when you're attempting to give a plot synopsis to the uninitiated. To give you an idea precisely what I mean, I'll briefly summarise the basic premise: a lonely, orphaned teenage boy seeks the assistance of his older, bad-ass, musician brother and an ice cream man (who also plays pretty mean lead guitar) in halting the diabolical machinations of a dimension-hopping, gender-bending undertaker who is killing people, stealing their bodies and turning them into dwarves (who incidentally look like Jawas) before sending them through a star-gate type device to work as slaves on another world. See what I mean? 

Perhaps strangest and most unexpected of all, is that the film works not only as a nutty yet extremely enjoyable B movie, but also succeeds on an emotional level due to its elegiac tone and warmly realised characters (witness the porch jam that Jody and Reggie have early in the film for example; maybe pointless on a narrative level but it's the kind of intimate, naturalistic scene that can make you feel almost instantly bonded with the characters, kind of like you're hanging out with them), who are a far cry from the 2D throwaway cutouts that often populate lesser films of the genre. Credit must go to all the principal actors for providing such memorable performances but perhaps especially so to the then young Michael Baldwin (not that one though) who carries most of the emotional weight of the movie as Mike, and also to the imposing Angus Scrimm as the now iconic Tall Man, who gives a larger than life performance that is almost otherworldly in parts (case in point - the scene next to Reggie's ice cream van).

Also of note is the excellent score by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. Like many classic horror soundtracks, especially of this era, it combines traditional, melodic elements and electronic, ambient sound-scaping; an ideal set-up for this film, with its mixture of the melancholic and  the foreboding. 

Don Coscarelli, far from being a one hit wonder, has gone on to be a cult genre figure in his own right, later producing three Phantasm sequels (none of which I've yet seen, criminally), the Bruce Campbell starring cult favourite Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) and the recent John Dies at the End (2012), an adaptation of David Wong's novel that's been garnering great reviews since its release. Let's hope that the money men continue to give him the funds to make even more wonderful, unique movies like all of these, but especially Phantasm.


  1. Replies
    1. Have seen a lot more movies in the 3 years since I posted this but Phantasm is still one of my all time favourites. Haven't watched it for a while so it's ripe for a revisit soon me thinks.

      Cheers for the comment :)