How is it that as long as Kindertrauma has been in operation nobody has written a traumafession about DON COSCARELLI’s 1979 horror opus PHANTASM? That flick made my hair stand on end as a kid! When I first saw it on VHS I was probably about the same age as its lead character Michael (A. MICHAEL BALDWIN). My identification with him was further cemented by the fact that I had a similar bizarre hair cut and a comparable inclination toward striped tube socks. Watching the film recently I am still in awe of it. So many other films have borrowed freely from PHANTASM that I have to remind myself just how groundbreaking it was at the time. Infusing sci-fi elements, dark fantasy and surrealistic dream logic into horror was not exactly the order of the day back in 1979, but COSCARELLI did so with gusto and he created a universe all his own that never existed before.
How about that “Tall Man” (ANGUS SCRIMM)?, How scary was that guy? Evilly looming above folks while they are trying to snooze, masquerading as the lady in lavender, yelling his signature “Boy!” (I know I just described Aunt John, but the tall man is even scarier), the tall man is really a stand in for death itself as PHANTASM, which truly lives up to its name, comes off as a feverish hallucination of a kid who is battling to accept the recent deaths in his family. Where do our dead loved ones go anyway? As it turns out in PHANTASM, they are shrunken down, forced to wear Jawa costumes and kept as slaves…comforting, huh? And how about that silver Cuisinart flying ball? Will somebody please get on making a parody youtube clip of BILLY MAYS trying to sell such a thing to the masses? (I’d do it myself, but I’m super swamped at the moment). This is a one of the kind movie that is just about as creatively inventive as it could be and please don’t get me started on the soundtrack. The DVD is a must own for that reason alone.
I’m not sure how PHANTASM would hold up for first time viewers today. I’m sure the Muppet bug attack must look pretty lame by modern standards but I continue to be smitten. This is a movie that connects me to my youth almost instantly and I’ll always love it for that. It’s also a film that is noticeably guy-centric. Michael’s character is preoccupied with the thought of being abandoned by his older brother and the film’s idea of a peaceful existence is just hanging out drinking beer and playing guitar. Funeral home rifle attacks are planned before a roaring fire place and it’s all sort of IRON JOHN by way of LOVECRAFT. There is almost a tree fort atmosphere here and the guys, rather than posturing and being competitive, have each other’s backs. The female characters may be slight and on the sidelines (the mysteriousness of some rings true with an adolescent boy’s perception), but it is also kind of refreshing that PHANTASM, for the most part, does not rely on their peril for scares.
Michael with his constant spying on his older sibling Jody (BILL THORNBURRY) and his need to be included in the investigation of the Morningside Mortuary perfectly captures that bubble in time when you could not wait to grow up and be included among the big kids. I think older brother Jody still reeks of coolness today and just think, his best bud and musical collaborator Reggie (REGGIE BANNISTER ) even drove an ice cream truck! Where were these guys when I was growing up? It’s funny though; this movie that used to make me long for adulthood along with Michael now has the exact opposite effect on me. How cool would it be to ride a motorcycle through a graveyard right about now? Where are my binoculars? Point me toward a basement window to smash! Even if you don’t find PHANTASM particularly scary anymore there is no denying that it is a fun comic book ride all the way. As for myself, I still get a bit of a chill when the Tall Man appears. No matter how old I get, that guy will always dwarf the tube sock wearing likes of me.