Summer Shocks 1979: Phantasm


Don Coscarelli’s balls-out horror flick

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

The walking dead took a jaunt to the mall. Some blue collar workers in space went beyond their job description when an unwanted alien boarded their ship. Dracula got a sexy makeover and an striking black bouffant. And the Lutz family had a bout of bad luck at 112 Ocean Avenue.

I was around for none of this.

Technically, I was. But as a Godzilla toy-embracing runt at just over two and a half, my developing brain was not yet cognizant of 1979’s cinematic terrors that unfolded from May through July. Yet, when I was old enough and my daily diet consisted of Chips Ahoy cookies and horror in my early teens, it was Don Coscarelli’s oddity Phantasm I sought first out of the ’79 crop.

Rife with feathered hair, fast cars and a storytelling aesthetic that’s borderline experimental, Phantasm connected with me on a level that was two-fold in that I was about the same age as its protagonist Mike (Michael Baldwin) and I lived just a five minute walk away from a stoic, white funeral home in Connecticut. And much like Phantasm‘s Morningside, this home for the dead, too, was set against a docile backdrop of verdant green trees and sat on an unassuming well kempt plot of land. Except what I imagined happened within its walls never quite matched the warped, otherworldly grotesqueries Coscarelli brought to the screen.

Phantasm, at its core, is an end of innocence parable juggling the freedom and unpredictable hardships that pepper adolescence – previously seen between Coscarelli’s first two film’s Jim, the World’s Greatest and Kenny & Company. This doesn’t simply apply to just young Mike, but all of those pulled into the sinister Tall Man’s game, including Mike’s older brother Jody and Reggie the ice cream man who doesn’t mind a guitar jam session from time to time (omnipresent in the Phantasm sequels and a fan fave). Death is present from minute one when this triumvirate lose one of their own, Tommy, during a fatal cemetery tryst with a “lady in lavender.” And Coscarelli wastes absolutely no time throwing you off guard, inter-cutting a close-up of the lady with the scowling visage of Angus Scrimm’s Tall man to imply Tommy is actually knockin’ boots with the old man. (Holy shit! is usually the resounding reaction this gets and the film only gets weirder). Themes of loss simmer beneath the obvious – like much of the action is set around the Morningside cemetery – as we also learn Mike and Jody lost their parents, leaving the latter to take after his sibling.

It’s when Jody vocalizes his plans to perhaps leave town that the Coscarelli shifts gears, applying another layer to his story. In short, Phantasm forces Mike to man up. Early on, Mike makes a visit to an old fortune teller and her granddaughter. During this, he’s asked to put his hand in a black box. “Don’t fear, Michael,” the granddaughter tells him. He ultimately freaks out and extracts his hand, failing the test, but he’s given various trials to prove himself later on. He’s not set on a hero’s journey, per se, considering Phantasm‘s ambiguous denouement, but Mike is definitely asked to kick his dependency on Jody.

Like he has any choice.

Phantasm gets the ball rolling (or in this case, should I say “flying”?) fast, throwing Mike, Jody and Reggie up against the Tall Man, his army of shrouded imps – corpses shrunk to bite-size for another dimension’s dastardly deeds – and soaring silver spheres that careen around hallways sinking their forks deep into any forehead they can find. Coscarelli, meanwhile, is our purveyor of the macabre and the strange steeping our attention in scenes featuring black and white photographs coming to life, or are awash in yellow goo or buzzing with a fussy bug Mike and Jody try to cram down a garbage disposal (in a sequence that Coscarelli aped and expanded upon for Bubba Ho-Tep). In Phantasm, something is amiss around every corner. And nothing is as it seems.

Mike rolls with the punches, however, whether it’s sitting vigilante by the front door of his house – albeit passed out – with a gun on his lap, evading the Tall Man, or coping with the absence of a body in his father’s casket (presumably because the Tall Man shrunk ‘im down). It’s hard to not like the kid. He takes his licks but keeps getting back up. And you have to love his ingenuity when he takes a shotgun shell, tapes it to a hammer and uses the two to blow a hole in a locked door. Unfortunately, when he gets his moment to step up to the plate and save two girls, he blows it, but hey, Mike knows how to drive his brother’s ‘Cuda and gets to steal a swig of beer from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Between the fear of the Tall Man and the envy of Mike’s adventure (its validity called into question at the end of the film), as a young viewer at the time, it was hard for me to not to fall into Phantasm‘s hypnotic appeal. And to this day, it still works (love that score) as an unnerving strip of celluloid that tips the balance of mainstream and teeters into the abstract. It doesn’t always offer you the answers you’re looking for, but that just enhances its dreamlike qualities. I’m always remiss to lump Phantasm in with the likes of Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street – which it sometimes is – because it’s not a slasher film by any means. Coscarelli’s film sits firmly in a category of its own that’s as peculiar as its title and as its story.

Read on for Jeff’s thoughts on The Amityville Horror

Other horror films released in the summer of ’79:

Dawn of the Dead (May 24th)

Alien (May 25th)

Prophecy (June 15th)

Nightwing (June 22nd)

Dracula (July 20th)

Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor