Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Phantasm Mythology

On September 15, viewers will finally be able to watch Don Coscarelli’s entire PHANTASM series on DVD. For years the rights to PHANTASM II have been in limbo, but at long last Universal has resolved the problem and completed the quadrilogy. This is significant because, as a whole, Coscarelli’s series is one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of cinema fantastique. Since the series never quite achieved mainstream success, Coscarelli was able to maintain creative control over the sequels and to provide the series with a consistent, unifying vision. (I still pine for what might have been if, say, Wes Craven had been able to control the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise, or if David Cronenberg had been inclined to make the sequels to SCANNERS. It's a rare thing for a horror myth to be allowed to mature with its original mythmaker, but that's exactly what happened with PHANTASM...)


Phantasm (1979)

“It was simply a reflection. Fear is the killer.”

The original PHANTASM works as a stand-alone piece about childhood fear, effectively creating an atmosphere of combined dread and awe through striking visuals and hypnotic music (the theme has always reminded me of the use of "Tubular Bells" in THE EXORCIST). The film's mystique extended even to the original publicity materials. Who could forget the original poster art, which begged endless questions – not least of which was the meaning of the word “phantasm”? Webster’s Dictionary defines it simply as “a product of the imagination: illusion.” Coscarelli’s film offers no more clarity than this.

The writer/director says that PHANTASM is about “the American way of death” – the way that we, as a culture, have turned death into a dirty secret rather than acknowledging it as a natural part of life. The villain of the piece, a sinister undertaker known as The Tall Man, embodies our resulting irrational fears of death. Actor Angus Scrimm plays the nightmare man with obvious relish, growling at us: “You think that when you die you go to heaven? You come to ME!” (In real life, Angus Scrimm is the kindest of men. I met him a few years ago at a Horrorfind convention in Baltimore, where he recited the entirety of Poe’s “The Raven” from memory... He explained that he had spent weeks learning it by heart, because he felt that the fans deserved something more than an autograph. I immediately tried to cast him as the narrator in the Discovery Channel series A HAUNTING, which I was working on at the time, but the show-runner vetoed the idea.)

Of course, The Tall Man is no natural undertaker. The lead character, 13-year-old Mike, believes that he is an alien come to earth to plunder small town America's graveyards and enslave its dead. Coscarelli has said that he took his inspiration from the 1953 film INVADERS FROM MARS, which is told entirely from the perspective of a young boy who believes that aliens have hijacked the minds and bodies of his parents. The Tall Man (who hails from a distinctly red, though unnamed, planet) also enslaves minds and bodies – though the full details don’t become clear until PHANTASM III. Mike’s parents have already been victimized prior to the start of the first movie, leaving Mike in the care of his older brother Jody and his friend Reggie. Mike's greatest fear is that his brother will abandon him – and he has good reason to be afraid. Jody is a restless character, eager to sow his wild oats. He and Mike bond over muscle cars (in particular, Jody’s Hemi Cuda) and beer (Dos Equis appears to have been an unofficial sponsor of the first film), but they are still worlds apart when it comes to the most important subject in a young man's life: Sex.

The entire chain of events in the first film is set into motion by sex. Mike becomes aware of the Tall Man only after Jody’s friend Tommy is seduced and killed by a mysterious Lady in Lavender (who turns out to be the Tall Man in disguise). Later, Jody is also seduced by the Lady in Lavender, but saved by his cock-blocking little brother, who claims that he is being stalked by angry dwarfs dressed like monks(!). Naturally, Jody thinks he’s full of shit… until he witnesses the magic of the Tall Man for himself.

By this point in the film, Coscarelli has led us deep into a world where we cannot clearly distinguish reality from illusion. There are hints that the supernatural events in the film are happening only in Mike’s imagination. In one instance, Mike visits a local fortune teller who convincingly demonstrates that the only thing he should fear is fear itself… but then, when Mike leaves, the old fortune teller laughs maniacally. Are we meant to infer that the adult world is trying to convince him that the monsters aren’t real… perhaps to make him more vulnerable to the monsters? Certainly, the strange events that follow seem like the wild imaginings of child who reads or watches a lot of science fiction. We see Mike get chased through the halls of Morningside Mortuary by a flying silver sphere that literally sucks the blood out of its victims’ heads. (Coscarelli says the idea of “the ball” came to him in a childhood dream.) The mystery unfolds in a glowing white room (inspired, Coscarelli says, by a similar room in the film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) with a “space gate” leading to a desolate red planet populated by midget monk slaves.

With Jody and Reggie’s help, Mike manages to close the gate and escape The Tall Man. Or does he? Coscarelli shot multiple endings for the film. The theatrical ending suggests that Jody died in a car wreck before he could have saved Mike from The Tall Man. Mike then realizes realizes that the Grim Reaper can’t be killed… and, once again, he gets pulled into the Tall Man’s world of fearful illusion. The final scene is very similar to the final scene in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET – a film that owes a huge debt to PHANTASM. In 1979 as in 1985, this type of trick ending, where evil triumphs in one last shock, was ubiquitous. (It's almost as common in 2009.) But while the trick ending undercuts Craven’s original concept, it serves Coscarelli’s vision well. After this, Mike will never again doubt the existence of monsters in the real world... and that's the first step toward survival.

Phantasm II (1988)

“It gets hard on the road.”

The real-world existence of The Tall Man is taken for granted in PHANTASM II (1988), which unfortunately relieves the sequel of the first film’s thematic complexity. Since PHANTASM II was financed by Universal Studios rather than through independent means, a more straightforward narrative was a precondition (as was the replacement of actor Michael Baldwin by James LeGros in the role of Mike). The sequel retains the distinctive visuals and high energy of the original film, but structurally it is as much of an action movie/western as a sci-fi/horror film. (Contemporary audiences could think of it as a forerunner of the TV series SUPERNATURAL, where the two main characters are hunters rather than victims.)

The story begins ten years after the events of the original film, when Mike is released from psycho-therapy and immediately enlists Reggie to help him hunt down The Tall Man. The duo stock up on exotic weapons (among them, a homemade flamethrower and a quadruple-barrel shotgun) and hit the road in Jody’s faithful Hemi Cuda. The rest of the PHANTASM series is one extended road movie, with requisite male bonding and replaceable female love interests.

At the beginning of PHANTASM II, Mike meets the girl of his dreams – literally. Liz is a telepathic teenager whose family and hometown have been abducted by The Tall Man. Using her unique connection to Mike (who is also telepathic), she draws him and Reggie to the ghost town of Perigord, Oregon. For Mike, the trip is a rite of passage into manhood. Whereas he was running from his fears in the first film, he is now running toward his fears, determined to eradicate them at the source. When he arrives in Perigord, he assumes the role of protector and falls in love. Allegedly, the filmmakers shot a scene in which Mike and Liz have telepathic “safe sex.” If true, that would have made a nice contrast to the scene in which Reggie’s love interest turns out to be a super-freak. (One wonders how Reggie could have failed to recognize that any woman turned on by male pattern baldness can’t possibly be human.)

Owing to a 3 million dollar effects budget, PHANTASM II is by far the most action-oriented entry in the series, and therefore the most enjoyable for some viewers (including the esteemed critic Joe Bob Briggs), but it does less to advance the series mythology than the other films. Among the new additions: a gold sphere with laser-sighting (which we will later learn is an extension of the Tall Man’s mind, whereas the less powerful silver spheres are extensions of the enslaved minds of his victims), full-sized zombies rather than the traditional midget monk zombies, and evidence that The Tall Man can self-replicate. The second film, like the first, ends with a cliffhanger – Mike and Liz are taken hostage by The Tall Man, and Reggie is left for dead.

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

“Seeing is easy. Understanding… Well, that takes a little more time.”

With PHANTASM III, Don Coscarelli re-invigorates his mythology. Right off the bat, he raises the looming question of why The Tall Man is so preoccupied with Mike. Why has he kidnapped him twice (at the end of each movie) instead of simply killing him? Why, after Liz is killed, does The Tall Man retreat when Reggie threatens to blow up Mike’s body? (“I don’t want him in pieces,” the undertaker growls, “I’ll wait…”)

In one of the most memorable scenes in the series, Mike suffers a near-death experience after his latest bout with The Tall Man. On his way to a heavenly light, he is reunited with his dead brother Jody… but their reunion is abruptly interrupted when the alien undertaker takes Mike hostage, reminding him that death is not an escape. Jody remains with his brother as a kind of spirit guide, while Mike struggles to comprehend his dark future.

Reggie, meanwhile, is on his own journey. In Holtsville, Idaho, he picks up a new ward (a tough little orphan named Tim) and a new girl (a nunchuck-wielding Army brat named Rocky) and continues pursuing The Tall Man. Personally I don’t care much for the supporting characters, or for the film’s over-reliance on comic relief zombies, but that's not to say that PHANTASM III disappoints. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Mike and The Tall Man. Michael Baldwin, returning to the role after 15 years, brings a great deal of maturity to the role. The precocious kid from the first film has become a deeply haunted adult. Even better is Angus Scrimm, who gracefully transforms his enigmatic boogeyman into a fully fleshed-out character with clear motivations… and without ever sacrificing the character's mystique. The Tall Man has some relatively lengthy passages of dialogue, which might have crippled the movie if not for crisp writing and studied delivery. Instead, I was entranced by The Tall Man's almost-reassuring plea: “Let me release you from this imperfect flesh that ties you to time and space. All that is unknown will be known to you once more.”

If PHANTASM is about Mike coming to terms with his childhood fears, and PHANTASM II is about his becoming an adult by confronting those fears, then PHANTASM III is about confronting death as a mature adult. It’s not often that a horror film (let alone the third film in a series) dares to be so intellectually ambitious. In this film, death is transfigured from the boogeyman into a mystery with equal parts light and darkness. We, like Mike, are beginning to see a bigger picture and in the final reel The Tall Man’s grand plan comes into focus.

When Mike escapes from the clutches of death, he has been transformed. As Reggie attempts to save him one moe time, he turns on his friend with gleaming silver eyes and issues a warning: “Don’t come near me!” From here, Mike’s inward struggle begins and Reggie’s physical struggle appears to be at an end. Thanks to the advent of CGI, Coscarelli is able to pit him against a room filled with hundreds of the Tall Man's deadly silver spheres.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

“I need to go back to the beginning – back where it all started.”

Since the PHANTASM films never gained a mainstream following, investors weren’t lining up to finance a fourth entry in the series. What got it off the ground was the enthusiasm of the original cast… and the ingenuity of the series creator. Coscarelli remembered that, in his garage, he had a box full of outtake footage from the original PHANTASM – complete with three alternate endings. He realized that if he re-purposed this footage... and if he wrote the fourth script script around low-maintenance shooting locations... and if he stole a page from George Lucas’s STAR WARS playbook and crafted an origin story along the lines of Darth Vader… he could complete Mike's story arc.

PHANTASM IV, like its predecessor, follows the dual story lines of Mike and Reggie. Reggie – everybody’s favorite horndog ice cream vendor – continues his pursuit of Mike and The Tall Man, does battle with a zombie cop, gets involved in another car wreck (why does this guy have such bad luck with cars and women?), tries to get it on with a girl who has silver balls for tits, and finally embraces his role as alien exterminator. Actor Reggie Bannister isn’t quite as charismatic as Bruce Campbell, who plays an equally unlikely hero in ARMY OF DARKNESS and in Coscarelli's BUBBA HO TEP (2002), but you have to hand it to the guy: he never holds back.

Mike, meanwhile, goes on a journey of self-exploration in the desert that would make Jim Morrison envious. He remembers “that last perfect day” of childhood innocence before The Tall Man entered his life, then remembers his own attempt to kill the boogeyman by hanging him (alternate ending #1). In desperation, the adult Mike tries to hang himself. Before he can finish the deed, we see a dark figure set against the white waste land of Death Valley, like the monolith in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or Bergman’s Black Death on the desolate shores of THE SEVENTH SEAL.

I once read a Grimm’s fairy tale about a man who captured death in a bag and hung it from a tree. He thought he had done the world a favor, but then people grew old and tired. They began attempting suicide... always in vain. That story came into my mind as The Tall Man approached. He rescues him from the hanging tree just as, years earlier, Mike had rescued him (alternate ending #2). Their fates are intertwined. The Tall Man says, “You have no one but me.”

Thus joined, Mike is granted a glimpse into the origins of his Other. We learn that Death was once a kindly old inventor named Jebediah Morningside, who created a space gate for inter-dimensional travel. (He was also somehow related to the fortune teller from the first film, who falsely advised young Mike that “fear is the killer.”) Jebediah’s first “trip” through the space gate gave him supernatural powers – powers that he has now passed on to Mike. Mike is also granted a privileged glimpse into the future – a post-apocalyptic morning on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, where The Tall Man is the only living creature. He advances on us in slow-but-steady motion, like a natural disaster. These shots, stolen (without a filming permit) at 6AM one Thanksgiving morning, are among the most memorable in the series.

Mike soon realizes that he has inherited The Tall Man’s powers… and also that he has somehow maintained free will. In a final showdown, he and Reggie attempt to exploit the villain's weaknesses for cold air and acoustic vibration. The outcome is appropriately unsettling: You can't kill Death. PHANTASM IV closes the main character’s story arc by bringing him full circle, back to his childhood realization of mortality. The final line of dialogue (from alternate ending #3) rounds out the series on a hauntingly beautiful note, and demonstrates just how powerful a horror series can be when it is the product of one superb storyteller's vision.

Phantasm V?

For years, there has been talk of a fifth PHANTASM movie. When I met Don Coscarelli at the 2005 Horrorfind convention, I was one of many annoying fans who asked the same question: “Is there going to be another one?” I even added, “I still think there are some loose ends to tie up.” I was thinking of the fate of Reggie’s character, whose pursuit of The Tall Man continues at the end of PHANTASM IV. But Coscarelli simply shrugged it off. “No,” he said, “It’s all there.”

Given the opportunity (and the budget), I still think he might reconsider and open up the world of PHANTASM again. But for now, I'm extremely grateful for what we’ve got: PHANTASM I – IV constitute the most underrated, intellectually-ambitious horror franchise of the last three decades. Do yourself a favor: When PHANTASM II arrives on September 15, plan a weekend marathon. And while you're at it, may I suggest kicking off the marathon with Coscarelli's first feature starring Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister? KENNY & COMPANY (1976), a long-lost coming-of-age film, works as a thematic precursor to the PHANTASM series... and it is an excellent film in its own right, perfectly capturing the innocent wonder of childhood and the first discovery of fear and death. Phantasmic dreams!


  1. Anonymous3/06/2011

    Phantasm V is needed for closure.

  2. You've summed it up perfectly! And V is s here! :-)


  3. Anonymous3/30/2015

    V is out this year!

  4. If you have not seen these 4 movies SEE THEM.

  5. And here I am, in October 2016, about an hour from seeing Phantasm 5: Ravager. What an amazing journey this series has been. RIP Angus Scrimm.

  6. Holla Newman8/03/2017

    That was a great piece of writing there, I very much enjoyed reading it whilst listening to The Nightcrawler version of The Phantasm theme. I love the fact you noticed the similarity to Supernatural, that show must've been enspired by it. ��