Writer, Director, Producer and sometimes Editor Don Coscarelli has often centered his most outlandish works onto a relatable anxiety about human existence, whether it’s the loss of sanity in the movie adaptation of, “John Dies In The End”, or old age and obscurity in, “Bubba Ho-Tep”. But the 1979 horror movie, “Phantasm” is ground zero for the writer/director’s penchant of merging weird concepts and sincere human drama. Yes, the budget on the movie is kinda apparent, for the movie only uses a few locations and has sparse special effects. Plus the movie does have a few plot inconsistencies and moments that read as, “cheesy” to a modern audience used to media that pretends to be real (“found footage” movies, Reality TV, the late moviemaking of Paul Greengrass, etc..) But here is a potent, affecting movie that manages to stick to one’s head like many a worthwhile horror film in the late 1970s through late 1980s.
The movie opens with a sex scene and the immediate death of a friend of Mike and his older brother Joey. Mike sneaks to the funeral and notices some strange things going on, one of which involves a character played by the late Angus Scrimm. This in the midst of a character drama where Joey is afraid of his older brother leaving him behind for a life somewhere else. And…well, the movie just escalates from there, with Joey uncovering a strange/sinister conspiracy involving spheres, henchmen, and the dead bodies of the town citizens. At first, its strange to see everything go back and forth between the mausoleum and the hometown, even by the normal standards of, “curious horror movie protagonist”. But eventually it pays off with gory deaths, heavy atmosphere courtesy of Don Coscarelli’s cinematography and the music of Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave, and…well, just see the movie for yourself, it might blow your mind the lengths this movie goes.
What really makes this movie work is how, despite its obvious budget limits, it conveys the sense of being trapped in a surreal nightmare. Part of that is due to the budget, sure, what with repeat forrays into the graveyard, extended shots of the iconic 1971 Plymouth Barracuda, and just a few showings of elements what would later get more exposure and elaboration in the later, “Phantasm” movies, but all of that is used in a smart, skillful way. The movie edits around what would normally be tedious scenes of dialogue and setting, pushing the viewer forward into a strange kind of hell without sacrificing the atmosphere. It also helps that A. Michael Baldwin here does a good job of playing a curious, spunky and cautious kid, fighting for his survival but also to maintain a shaky status quo with the absence of his parents. The movie doesn’t go into dramatic detail about it like, say, “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even the level of a sitcom, but it allows its characters to roam and breathe just enough to give tragic life to a genre most people flock to just for the nudity, kooky horror conceits and gore.
Even with such skillful moviemaking, the movie pushes the brink of one’s suspension of disbelief. Like many a movie influenced by old horror movie classics, the film goes for a few moments of imitation of said works, with mixed results. Shots are repeated in ways that jar the viewer, and the editing may elicit some laughter or cringing in a person raised on the precision of movies made with digital editing software. The special effects are shown sparsely for a reason, because any longer and the movie’s illusion would break, so fantastic moments come by in a, “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” fashion. The screening I attended had people laughing at parts intended to be scary, and while on one hand I can understand movie buffs like myself being annoyed by that, the truth is the movie is quite flawed. There are glaring continuity errors, and the way some of the baddies are dispatched does not make sense. The acting is, “dodgy” in the sense that it is not as restrained or, “method” as modern horror films are, and the movie’s earnestness can read as hokey to a modern audience used to more instant gratification at the expense of plot.
Is that a flaw in ourselves, a sign that we have become impatient, lesser consumers with no appreciation for history and an inability to grow out of what is often called, “irony” in today’s consumption of media? Yes, but Hollywood (and the culture that props up said institution) teaches us to be this way. It was Hollywood that abandoned such earnestness as the times moved on, when they saw that attempts to make epics in the vein of, “Ben-Hur” and, “Spartacus” failed in the 1960s, thus making the titans turn to a bunch of stoners and rascals to spice things up with riffs on what THEY liked as kids (many of which are very good movies). Then when they tried to mine THAT for more money…well, “One From The Heart” happened. “Heaven’s Gate” happened. “Ishtar” happened. When the blockbuster business model began to be adopted by more studios, the business became more of a penny-pinching juggarnaut than a business that dominated the American way of life and thus was willing to break more molds. Was the past always good? Hell to the fuck no, but the thing one needs to understand is that media industries aren’t known for meeting sincerity and humanity halfway unless they can make a pretty penny from it (or not piss of powerful leaders of the staus quo). And that’s where moviemakers like Don Coscarelli come into the scene, from the edges, reminding us that its ok to have a heart, to care about something while getting a few jolts and moments of disgust.
I think, “Phantasm” is a worthwhile movie, not just as an installment in a long-running series that is set to conclude with, “Phantasm V: Ravger” (no, really, there are 4 other Phantasm movies, and they are absolutely batshit), not even as a way to, “prove” to other moviebuffs your knowledge of late-1970s to late-1980s horror, but as a movie in itself. As a point of transition from the orchestral, Hayes Code-approved monster movies made by Universal to the sleazy, ugly gorefests of today, it has many rough spots. But it manages to creep and shine on its own terms even today, simply because for all of its mayhem and gore, there is a tragic heart beating in its center.
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