Phantasm, Weird Fiction, and the Dream State

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” – Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

Horror and the surreal go hand in hand. As a genre, horror can be summarized as the intrusion of the irrational into the mundane. In Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, we have a very pure expression of the mundane, in the form of the suburban everytown that most of the characters agree is oppressively dull (or to put it another way, “dead”), and an even purer expression of the irrational, in the form of murderous dwarves concealed in dark robes, a beautiful violet-dressed woman who transforms into a ghastly tall ogre of a man, and a levitating silver sphere that roves the halls of the town mausoleum on the hunt for brains. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Theoretically, this is where I should start to recap the plot, although with a movie like Phantasm, not only is the plot sort of beside the point, it’s so bizarre that it’s hard to even know where to begin. To sum it up: Strange things are afoot in the suburbs. After the mysterious death of his friend Jody, 13 year old Mike spies an imposing Tall Man (as he’s referred to in the credits, and among the film’s cult of fans – embodied by Angus Scrimm, he’s one of cinema’s greatest boogeymen, up there with Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter and Nick Castle in Halloween) lift up his coffin single-handedly and spirit it away. Mike is the sole witness to this, and also the only one to notice a rash of grunting, robed dwarves lurking around corners and in shadows all over town (Coscarelli shows an uncommonly proficient grasp of how to use chiaroscuro shadows for maximum effect, revealing just enough for us to sense that something is profoundly wrong but not enough for us to ever get a firm handle on what’s lurking just out of view). Unable to convince his older brother Jody, who’s more concerned with finding someone to look after his kid brother so he can get out of their dead-end town, Mike takes to the mortuary that seems to be the center of all the weirdness plaguing the town. Which is when things get truly bizarre, and the movie becomes one of the purest depictions of a waking nightmare in all of cinema.

Phantasm is not the only horror movie to concern itself with dreams, or to embody a kind of dream logic. After all, one of the most potent fears that we can all relate to is the terror of waking from a nightmare. About halfway through the film, Phantasm features one of the all-time great nightmare scenes in cinema, wherein Mike imagines his bed transported to the middle of a cemetery, with the implacable Tall Man looming over him. Crucially, this nightmare denies us the cinematic convention of seeing the protagonist wake up, instead abruptly cutting to another scene. The boundaries between dreams and waking life in Phantasm are so porous as to be functionally nonexistent, and there is far more in the film that defies explanation than there is that makes sense.

In this, Phantasm owes a significant debt to the “Weird Fiction” genre spearheaded by Edgar Allan Poe and carried on by cult writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. The grunting dwarves of Phantasm resemble the gruesome hog people of Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, and the mortuary’s status as a portal to other, darker dimensions certainly seems as if it could have come straight out of one of Hodgson or Lovecraft’s tales. The Tall Man himself, with one perpetually bulging eye (a great acting conceit by Scrimm, who, as evidenced in his delightful introduction to the out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD of Phantasm and one memorable scene in the film’s third sequel Phantasm: Oblivion, can just as easily play the role of a sweet old man) calls to mind the haunting visage of the old man in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Most overtly, the film features several references to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi cult classic Dune, including a wholesale lift of a scene involving Mike being forced to put his hand in a black box that will be familiar to anyone who has read the novel or seen David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation. The silver sphere that drills out people’s brains, well, that’s pure Don Coscarelli, which is a great credit to the director, being that it’s the most often remembered bit of the whole film.

(An aside: many have commented on the similarity between Phantasm’s dwarves and the hooded Jawas of Star Wars; as the story goes, Phantasm – which wasn’t released until 1979, but began filming much earlier – was already well into production by the time Star Wars was released in 1977, and while Coscarelli noted the similarity, he was too far into things, and the dwarves too integral to the film, for him to make any changes. I think this coincidence adds something to the film; the bright white of the mausoleum interiors and the shining chrome of the spheres also calls to mind the interior of the Death Star, and along with the Dune imagery, it all feels of a piece as the product of the unconscious state of a thirteen-year-old kid in the 1970s. It is surely no coincidence that Phantasm’s new restoration comes courtesy of J.J. Abrams, fresh off of directing his own Star Wars film.)

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Still, if weirdness were all Phantasm had to offer, it wouldn’t have as passionate a following as it does; what really brings it all home is the film’s strong emotional core, embodied in the character of Mike. Sixteen-year-old Michael Baldwin gives a shockingly good performance as the thirteen-year-old Mike, certainly the best in the movie, even more so than Scrimm’s fearsome turn as the Tall Man. Mike is our gateway into all of this surrealism, one of the best in a long tradition of fictional teenagers who are the first to discover a vast supernatural mystery in their ordinary suburb (a tradition most recently given a workout in the TV show Stranger Things, and if showrunners The Duffer Brothers haven’t seen Phantasm a dozen times, I’ll eat my hat). If we do take the whole of the film to be a dream, something the movie never completely confirms or denies, it is surely Mike’s dream, and as such it represents all of his very real teenage fears and anxieties, over the often referenced death of his parents in a car accident, and over the even more potent fear that his older brother will take off and leave him by himself. The attention to detail in the production design points toward this without leaning too hard on it; Mike has a giant poster of a lunar landscape on his wall that predicts the glimpse he will get of The Tall Man’s home planet, and we can catch a glimpse of a yellowed sci-fi paperback on his nightstand.

It is among kids like Mike that this film made its mark (I myself was a twelve-year-old kid named Mike when I first encountered Phantasm, and it certainly made an impression on me), and it became cult classic of the most potent “you have GOT to see this!” variety. It may not be every day that you find someone who’s seen or even heard of Phantasm (as I mentioned, the DVD has been out of print for many years, yet another reason to be glad for this new restoration), but when you do, they tend to be very passionate in their recollection of the film’s non-stop cavalcade of bizarre images. One can only hope this rerelease will serve to freak out a whole new generation of young people looking for the next, weirdest thing.

 

 

 

Michael James Roberson is a film enthusiast living in Somerville, Massachusetts. Past examples of his film writing can be found at his blog (https://armflailingtechniques.wordpress.com/) and in the book Thoughts on the Thin Man compiled by Danny Reid. He is also co-host of the podcast Nameless Cults, specializing in horror and weird fiction.

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