Zombos Says: Very Good
Welcome to your nightmare, Mike.
Your parents are dead and your brother Jody is thinking of dumping you off to your aunt while he hits the road in his Plymouth Barracuda muscle car. I'd be depressed, too. It's no wonder your imagination starts running wild. I'd start imagining all sorts of phantasms if loss and abandonment were uppermost in my mind.
Being a kid in the 1970s doesn't help much, either. After that exuberant, but now defunct, 1960s high, Tom Wolfe's aptly named "Me Decade," is spinning out of control like a bad, long, hallucinatory trip that begins with a glittering disco ball and quickly morphs into one of the Tall Man's sentinel spheres sticking out of your forehead, drilling into your brain.
Phantasm is Don Coscarelli's acid trip on the dark side. With many social institutions losing their veneer of propriety in the 70s, Coscarelli made sure to beat up our quaint notions of peaceful death, comforting undertakers, and simple horror movies. His low-budget film, initially financed by his dad and picked up by Universal after a rough-cut showing, is a tad dated in the special effects department, but remains a scary, bizarre, trip centering around Morningside Mortuary with Mini-Me versions of recently deceased people popping up, flying metal balls with nasty skull-drills popping up, and a tall sneering gentleman from another place far far away popping up. Able to lift long coffins with a single arm, and endowed with abilities far beyond those of mere mortals like Jody, Mike, and Reggie—the guitar-playing ice-cream man—the Tall Man is one cantankerous and dangerous undertaker.
So go ahead, toss an ABBA platter onto the old turn-table and crank up the volume if that will help make you feel better for a little while. It's time to have that safe, comfy, feeling blown out from under you, when even in death you get no respect.
Can you dig it?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Phantasm a cult classic. While the direction is a bit rough, there's a distinct momentum in scenes, like a deck of cards being neatly shuffled with each card crisply riffling into the interweaving pile. While the acting is also a bit amateurish, there's a disarming simplicity to each of the characters, making their nightmarish ordeal stand out against the ordinariness of their lives. While some of the effects are low-tech, they play on the absurd terror of the situation, and the eerie, almost dreamlike—or nightmare-like—situations that reveal more of the sardonic Tall Man's alien nature, and his sacrilegious dwarfing-down of the bodies of loved ones supposed to be at rest.
The film opens with a glimpse of sex and murder precipitated by the Tall Man's more feminine side. In a weird twist that disorients with its shock-blink between her and him, we're hustled into a funeral that brings together best-buds even though the unexpected death of their buddy, Tommy, breaks up their musical trio for good. Now with little left to hold him down, Jody is ready to leave the small town, but Mike, his younger brother, doesn't want to lose the only close family he has left. But Mike has little time to be depressed; the mortuary's undertaker is a queer sort, and Mike starts to suspect why.
Or is Mike just punch-drunk from grief and imagining things?
Not knowing which end is up, Mike heads to his local psychic for help. She plays the old stick-your-hand-in-the-box trick and tells him to control his fear. But fear from what? Leaving the psychic, he's more confused than when he went in, so he stays close to his big brother. Trolling the local bar, Jody picks up the same "woman" who iced his bud, Tommy. Lucky for him, Mike interrupts his brother's nocturnal romp in the cemetery before she can do any harm.
The next day, while following Jody around again, Mike sees the Tall Man walking across the street. A blast of cold air from an ice-cream truck attracts the Tall Man's attention. Angus Scrimm is surreal as the lean, mean, undertaker-machine. His voice, his face, his whole body makes you want to run the other way when he approaches. Like the alien harvester in 1957's Not of This Earth, the Tall Man is up to no good, and Mike aims to find out just what that is.
Taking a sharp knife with him, Mike heads to Morningside Mortuary.
Late at night, of course.
A quick kick through the basement window later, he's prowling around the creepy marble hallways. In no time at all, he's barely escaping encounters with an oversized ball-bearing from hell and the Tall Man and his Jawa-looking munchkins. After slamming a big metal door shut before he's caught, he's startled to find the Tall Man's hand, flattened, still moving, and sticking out of the tiny crack in the door frame. He lops off a few of its fingers, spilling yellow ichor from the stumps. Mike realizes it's time to high-tail it out of there. Before he goes, he grabs one of the fingers as evidence.
More nightmarish events ensue after underage Mike downs a beer or two and convinces Jody not all is right with Morningside Mortuary. Jody loads up the old family gun and heads there—again at night—but gets attacked by a dwarf and makes a run for it. Worse yet, a hearse chases after him, driven by a much shorter—didn't we just bury him?—Tommy. Underage Mike pulls up in the bitchin' Barracuda, and the race is on. Reggie pulls up in his ice-cream truck after the hearse crashes and they discover the diminutive Tommy at the wheel.
Jody sends Mike to Sally's antique store for safety while they stuff the little guy into Reggie's truck so the squirt can ooze yellow ichor over all the popsicles. While perusing the antiques back at Sally's, Mike's eyes pop out when he comes across an old tintype photo of the Tall Man that comes alive (Stephen King uses the same effect in his novel, IT).
Looks like the guy's been around for a long, long time. Great. Time to rethink their fighting strategy.
Reggie, the ice-cream packing, guitar-strumming dude, joins in the fight. Being an ice-cream packing, guitar-strumming dude, he gets whooped good when Tommy bounces back to angry life among the popsicles. When the three of them—Mike, Jody, and Reggie—regroup and converge on the mortuary, they find the gateway to another world, lots more angry munchkins ready for UPS Global pickup, and all about what the Tall Man's been up to. Just when you think the story is nice-and-tidily ended, Coscarelli throws in a curve-ball. With three sequels, the Tall Man is unstoppable.
Phantasm will leave you wanting more flying balls of death, more of the Tall Man's shenanigans, and more munchkin-madness.
OMG is that Fred Phelps?
Posted by: James Lehan | September 13, 2008 at 06:08 AM
Tall Mans Hot
Posted by: Cindy | June 12, 2008 at 03:00 PM