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May 10, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #123 - Phantasm

I seriously don't get Phantasm.  I've seen Phantasm a bunch of times - like, 12 or 37 times, at least - and I swear that every time I watch it again for the past 15 plus years I've been like "Wait a minute, what in the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was THAT?" at least once.  (Sometimes I don't curse FDR, sometimes I say Amelia Earhart...depends on my mood.)  But what I do quickly realize whenever I take a gander at Phantasm, is that few films have ever mimicked an actual nightmare quite like this one does.
In a way, one could argue that much of Phantasm plays out as the nightmares of a slightly pathetic young boy named Mike (this post has been edited because I'm stupid sometimes, act casual) who looks and talks in a manner that isn't traditionally masculine.  His parents are dead, his brother might leave him behind, and he's certainly not cool enough to be popular at school - we can tell that even though we never see him in that setting.  About 87% of the film is about realizing just how helpless Mike is, by my estimate.
Normally a film about such a character would be difficult, but we get the sense early on that the world of Phantasm isn't quite right.  So many sequences throughout the film feel like nightmares that the characters might be having.  At the beginning, a beautiful woman kills her lover and then morphs into an old man/cryptkeeper.  Later, another sexual encounter adds a bit of voyeurism and some kind of critter that looks like one of those Star Wars Jawas. (Sorry, you will never get me to talk about Phantasm and NOT mention Jawas.)  But primarily, bad stuff starts happening to Mike, and most of it feels like something we can't be sure is dream or reality.
The thing we learn pretty quickly is that Mike is one of those kids who's a) got a heck of an imagination and b) doesn't seem content with the simple parts of life.  Heck, his bed is next to a giant wall sized photo of the view of Earth from the moon - how much more "out of this world" can a kid be?  But it doesn't mean that Mike's dreams are all ridiculous.  Some moments - like the one when we see Mike chasing his brother who is always just out of reach and mysteriously can't seem to hear Mike's effeminate shouting - are pretty realistic human nightmares that let us in to the kid's troubled mind.  These aren't exactly unconscious thoughts in his mind - he vocalizes to a fortune teller (his only counselor, I guess) that he fears his brother is planning to leave him behind, but the signs are clear: Mike doesn't know how to deal with his fears, and they're seeping into his dreams.
There's a catch in Phantasm, however.  Writer/Director Don Coscarelli never really lets the viewer in on the gag.  Very few scenes are really played straight up as straight out "dream" sequences, but so much of what we see doesn't seem possible in a real world.  And a lot of the events that happen don't tie in to later scenes, leaving the viewer - or maybe it's just me, but for the sake of my own sanity I'm going to assume this happens to other viewers - pretty confused as to what really did just happen.
When Coscarelli and the film are on top of their mysterious and dark game, the images on screen seem completely surreal.  Many scenes feature pitch black backdrops, showing only the things the director wants us to focus in on.  Other sequences, like a strange antique shop late in the film, seem to embrace clutter and try to obscure our vision.  Each change in perspective seems intentionally drawn - and is usually punctuated by one of my favorite horror movie musical scores ever - it just doesn't always make sense from a storytelling perspective.  Especially when it gets all intergalactic planetary. (Or is it planetary intergalactic?  RIP MCA.)
I could drive myself mad trying to put together the pieces of Phantasm - I haven't even mentioned the chilling performance from Angus Scrimm or the iconic-if-not-ridiculous "silver sphere"! - but I don't really want to.  There's enough here, from Mike's gender issues to the Jawas from Mars with Banana Pudding blood (Can I trademark that moniker? "Jawas From Mars with Banana Pudding Blood" would make a great rock band!), to make the sum of the parts one of the most interesting and incessantly watchable horror movies of all-time. If I could have nightmares that look like Phantasm, I'd be really friggin' proud of my nightmares.  Why should I try to bring little things like "making sense" into that equation?
 (One more thing, and it's a GIANT FREAKING SPOILER. So stop reading if you haven't seen Phantasm.  Seriously. Stop it!

OK....the ending of the movie.  You know how awesome it is when Angus Scrimm shouts BOOOOYYYY. But y'know what I really love? The sound effects right after that.  Mike goes through the mirror into dreamworld, and all we can hear is this crazy cacophony (I just had to say's a real word, and I love it.  It's used to describe that sound when a bunch of noises are fighting against each other, like jazz music or Oprah Winfrey eating a canned ham.) of noises that sound like a bunch of dogs and demons (I swear one of those sounds in there is straight outta The Exorcist.) fighting over the girly boy's bones.  I swear, it's one of the coolest sets of sound effects out there.  Check it out.)

 Sweet dreams, Midnight Warriors!


Anonymous said...

Umm, Mike is the BOYYY's name, Jody is the older brother.

The Mike said...

Holy crap, I'm a fool sometimes. I was watching the dang movie while I wrote this, and somehow I outsmarted myself. Big fail!

: said...

Oh, PHANTASM, how I love you.

Like Mike said, you make no sense. Your budget shows, and you are dated.

But I love you all the same, for all your nonsensical nightmare logic and oh-so-creepy escapades.

You wouldn't place in my Top Ten, but I would give you a comfortable spot in my Top 15 or 20, easily.

I'm gonna go stare at my toy Hemicuda now, officially licensed and signed by Angus Scrimm.*


*yeah, I'm bragging