I thought I saw Phantasm back in the day but it seems I am greatly mistaken. The day must have been more of a muddy and murky place than I thought. The truth of the matter is that I have never seen Phantasm. The other truth is that Phantasm Is absolutely mad.
Ignoring all such things as explaining who everyone is and what everyone is doing in relation to each other, the film ploughs into the story expecting the audience to catch up by themselves. The first few scenes seem almost random. A moustachioed lover is stabbed to death by a hot blonde who keeps on turning into a crazy old man. Then we’re at a funeral which turns out to be for the dead chap but his two best friends seem kind of blasé about the whole thing. There are lots of scenes of a kid following one of the friends about before he’s chased by what looks like a Jawa from Star Wars. Then a massive chap in a too small suit carries a coffin over his shoulders and lobs it in the back of a hearse. All these scenes seem somewhat disjointed, as if they belong to different movies. This isn’t helped by the clearly apparent low budget of the film which makes things seem even more random and inconsistent.
But after a while things start slotting into place: the kid is one of the friend’s younger brother. He’s following him because he’s convinced, after their parents have died, that the brother too will leave him too, and he’s probably right. We gradually get to the crux of the story as we discover what the creepy old man, or The Tall Man as he’s known, and the Jawas are all about. Of course the explanation is bonkers but somehow it kind of works.
All of this is because director Don Coscarelli is a man who is prepared to take a very crazy idea and run with it. The film takes itself pretty seriously even when the dwarf Jawa things are throwing themselves through car windows, and although they, in particular, seem kind of silly, when you find out what they are it’s actually rather horrifying. Coscarelli was making this film in a time when horror films were going against the grain: Stanley Kubrick could make a movie where most of it was shot in bright daylight and it could still scare the bejesus out of everyone. Stories weren’t set in Dracula’s castle any more but suburban homes. Dream logic was also all the rage: whether it was Fulci’s weird apocalypse movies, Argento’s giallos or, um, the bit in Exorcist 2: The Heretic from the point of view of a locust. Phantasm follows this dream logic story telling throughout but it DOES have a fairly straightforward plot if you think about it. What makes it so weird and wonderful, and stand out from the crowd, are twofold.
Firstly, there are moments of such strong but unusual imagery that Phantasm burns in your mind just like a nightmare. There’s the stunning moment when The Tall Man appears, maybe in a dream, maybe not, above the kid’s bed. It is a strong combination of a sudden shock and a great composition that gets you. You remember it because it is such a surprise but also because looks just so perfect at the same time:
Then there are the silver balls of death. They fly down the bright corridors of the mausoleum, where much of the action is set,and fasten themselves to their victims heads before pumping their blood out all over the floor. Apparently the whole film sprung from these scenes, their dreamlike quality obvious when you know that Coscarelli saw them in a nightmare and created most of the plot around them.
There are many other moment of strong visual imagery but they wrap into the second point that makes Phantasm so great and that is the repetition. As mentioned before most of the mystery revolves around this creepy mausoleum, which our heroes are constantly breaking into or running away from. If someone is caught they get taken there, then someone else will rescue them. Then that character decides to go back to find out what’s really going on, then has to escape The Tall Man or a bunch of Jawas. Then they go back again. It’s always different but somehow the same, like in a dream, looping over again, changing but not changing. It never gets dull from these repeating actions , only more involving.
Okay there’s a third reason why it’s so great. The tertiary hero, Reggie, runs an ice cream van. It’s not important to the story, and it certainly doesn’t save the day or any such thing, it’s just that that’s what he does and the van is what he drives. Always. So whenever he turns up in the middle of some scary, weird shit, he does so in a brightly coloured ice cream van. Reggie is also not your standard protagonist being short, bald and sporting a pony tail. It is not a good look, not even when he’s wearing his ice cream man hat. In fact the only time the whole ice cream van man thing affects anything is when the gang have to transport a (sort of) dead body across town and they’re able to squeeze it into the storage compartment of the van. “Is it gonna affect my ice cream?” Reggie asks. Yes Reggie, yes it will.
Phantasm is a great film. It is not for everyone: the acting is variable and the cheapness of the production is clearly on display, not helped by the DVD transfer that is from some crackly old film stock. Apparently there is a remastered version on its way courtesy of J J Abrams. He’s such a fan he named Captain Phasma in The Force Awakens after the movie. Maybe that will make more people appreciate Phantasm. Or at least remember if they haven’t seen it.
The madness and brilliance of ideas on screen were just the start of Coscarelli’s career in taking seemingly random thoughts and throwing them into a successful story. There were more Phantasms (definitely seen at least Part 2) and John Dies at the End. Probably his best so far is Bubba Ho-Tep but maybe Coscarelli still has more great stories. Let’s hope so because once you’ve seen one of them, you’ll never forget it.