Saturday, January 8, 2011

PSYCHO-Babble: Phantasm (1979)

I miss the Drive-Ins of my misspent youth. The rows of gargly metal speaker boxes. The seven story screens. The rusted playground filled with broken glass at it's foot.

If I was to cast a cynical eye, I could attach a metaphor to that sad little playground. Something about my lost innocence. Fractured psyche. Blah, blah, blah. I guess that could be true, but would also be kind of boring. I prefer to look at it a different way.

The Drive-Ins were where the most lurid and dark aspects of my own self found a home. Boobs the size of buicks. Buckets of entrails gushing out of body cavities. Cars honking their approval of every depraved moment. Sex. Violence. Giant garish communial projections of the animal nature within us that we labor to repress.

And thanks to this venue for double and triple featured grindhouse cheapies, many filmmakers used the horror genre to create classic visions of horror. Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre. John Carpenter's Halloween. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. Without studio heads and test audiences, these filmmakers were able to get as close as possible to transmitting their nightmares directly to their audiences, with only their limited budgets as barriers.

What was even more interesting than these highly regarded grindhouse classics were the ones that were less successful. These films also reflected a personal and twisted vision, but didn't work quite as well and have failed to register in the cannon of classic horror. But because of their sheer wierdness, they definitely stood out from the pack. I'm thinking of Charles Kaufman's Mother's Day and, most definitely, Don Coscarelli's Phantasm.

We open on Tommy, sporting some Quinn Martin Production sideburns. He's at Morningside Cemetery getting busy with a trashy blonde who is looking all Andrea True Connection with her blue eyeshadow and white pumps.

Clearly queludes are involved, because the boning movement is so slight I'm thinking actual penetration is not possible. Which may be all for the good, because after she stabs Tommy to death she turns into (lightning, thunder) The Tall Man.

So now we meet Tommy's brother. AKA Jody. AKA Seventies sex on legs.

Yeah, his hair is parted down the middle. Yeah, his bellbottoms are tight and his wavy brown locks hang down over his ears. (Later we learn he drives a Black 'stang. He's just that hot. You just know he read for Greg Evigan's part in BJ and the Bear and came this close.).

He's at Tommy's funeral with his best friend and jam session parter: Baldy McPonytail. BM also happens to drive an ice cream truck for reasons that will not become clear later.

We also meet Michael, his high strung younger brother who rides a dirt bike and is watching the funeral from afar via field glasses. He wasn't invited to the funeral because he still hasn't gotten over the death of his parents and is expressing his submerged rage with a super annoying haircut.

Suffice it to say, things get wierd. Set pieces include, but are not limited to:

An Old Witch who looks like Ozzy Osbourne:

The iconic Flying Metal Ball of Death:

Zombie jawa dwarves:

A parallel universe slave planet accessed by giant tuning forks:

Yes, Giant Fracking Tuning Forks:

As a 10-year-old rake of a horror nerd, I was mesmerized by Phantasm. Sitting in a lawn chair next to my Dad's Chevy Nova at Neponset Circle drive-in, shoveling handfuls of greasy stove-popped popcorn, riding out the sugar rush of five Stop and Shop Orange sodas, I related to Michael's sense of alienation, his fear of abandonment, his call to the dark side, his questionable grooming choices.

His nemesis The Tall Man represented everything that a 10-year-old fears: old mean people, death, even sex (when he was donning his disco diva drag). And the creepy theme music, with its hints of Rosemary's Baby, Halloween, and Suspiria. Synthesizery and oh-so-seventies really gets under your skin.

And it's not a stretch to see a little of teh gay in Phantasm land. Phantasm is a world of men. Women were either villainous or witchy, but not a main part of the core world. This is quite unusual for horror, which generally favors a "girl-in-trouble" plot structure.

And, whether intentional of not, Phantasm provided images that would play like a series of coming attractions for the archetypes that would take up permanent residence in my gay psyche for years to come:

EXHIBIT A: Before Frosty McEyeshadow pulls out her tits like a couple of raw chicken cutlets, we are treated to a shot of Jody's ass. It's brief, but I remember that it got my attention. It still has some type of magical talisman-like quality over me. I believe if I held it in my hand I might be able to fly, talk to the dead, or predict the future.

EXHIBIT B: There is that whole ending scene where Michael sees The Tall Man as a reflection in his closet and is then pulled into his closet by demon hands. 

Again, intentional or not it was certainly an image that would hold increasing resonance as the onslaught of gay puberty headed my way.

EXHIBIT C: It's tempting to make a crude joke about the balls flying at one's head in this movie, but seriously ... look at this thing. I mean. C'mon.

And then after it gets, er, inserted into homeboy's skull, um ... this happens.

I'm just saying.


  1. LOL! Wow, I have a whole new outlook to PHANTASM thanks to this post. It is kind of weird for a scary old man to want his balls flying in people's faces, now that I think about it. It's as if the film isn't weird enough. Great post!

  2. You brought out things I'd never seen/thought of before in this movie, you sick bastard. Awesome! Phantasm is too flat out *insane* to be a major part of the canon but is so unique and such a "personal vision" sort of thing you can't help but admire it. The sequels can die though.

  3. Awesome post! Loved the thinking behind 'Exhibit A' particularly.

  4. The final scene from Nightmare on Elm Street is a pretty direct rip off of the final scene from Phantasm. I recall both movies also have foot capturing goo in the carpet/ground to slow our heroes' retreat from the villain. I saw Nightmare many years before I saw Phantasm but I recall while viewing Phantasm thinking that Nightmare certainly had borrowed from it stylistically and thematically.

  5. Excellent post. I have a fondness for this film instilled in me my father, and its been far too long since I've revisited it. Anyway, I chose this post for inclusion in the fourth "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

    Check it out!