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John’s Horror Corner: Phantasm (1979), the Tall Man and the seven evil dwarves.

March 11, 2017


MY CALL: 
Complete, awesome absurdity is what we have here in this highly ambitious horror classic.  Here’s my take on the plot: a supernatural funeral director who occasionally seduces men (in the form of a young woman) employs bladed flying murder balls to kill people who interfere with his mission to create undead midgets whom he outsources as slave labor on an ultra-high gravity planet.  I shouldn’t need to explain who will like this film.  You know who you are.  MORE MOVIES LIKE PhantasmThere is little out there that compares to this film, so I’ll just suggest Phantasm II (1988) and perhaps the subsequent sequels up to part 5.

Writer/director Don Coscarelli (The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep) sets an admirably uneasy mood.  We are thrown off guard right away with a smorgasbord of weird; dead calm shots of the mausoleum are striking and dire while beautiful and well-lit, but the marble chamber and the nearby funeral parlor are populated by diminutive evil beings (they look like Jawas) disturbing our sense of calm.

Pallbearers at his brother’s funeral, Jody (Bill Thornbury; Phantasm 2-5) and ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister; Phantasm 2-5, Wishmaster) rekindle an old friendship while Jody stays in town taking care of now-orphaned teenager Michael (A. Michael Baldwin; Phantasm 2-5).

Perhaps for witnessing something he shouldn’t have seen, Michael finds himself followed by the skulking evil midgets that inhabit the funeral home and cemetery.  These malevolent sprites lead Jody and Reggie to greater other-worldly threats.  This threat and the Tall Man’s motives go largely unexplained.  He’s simply the tall, evil old man who runs the Morningside Funeral Parlor.

The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm; Phantasm 2-5, Subspecies, Wishmaster) is sufficiently gruff, supernaturally strong, and shapeshifts into a lady dressed in lavender (Kathy Lester; Phantasm III, Phantasm: Ravager) to seduce men or serve as disguise.  While we never witness them interact directly, it is implied that the evil dwarves work with him.

You can’t discuss Phantasm without mentioning the balls.  The effects were great, with the murderous chrome spheres flying throw the air (excellent and seamless rotoscoping, by the way), unsheathing blades, impaling victims, and drilling into their heads!  The gore is sufficient as blood gushes in bright red and mustard yellow. More silly than scary and an example of a cheap effect, a severed finger transforms into a furry monster beetle (for apparently no real reason at all).

If this all sounds weird, please understand we’re just getting started.  Apparently, the Tall Man is transforming dead people into his growling hooded dwarf servants and there is a portal to another dimension, to which he apparently outsources this labor force…to do…something.  Don’t expect any explanations.

These somewhat sci-fi concepts are introducing us to a greater theme that is only partially realized in this film.  As if world-building, Coscarelli is setting the stage for something of grander scale by letting us know that these things exist, without getting into the why’s.  At one point Michael visits a creepy fortune-teller and her telepathically linked granddaughter who subject him to a Dune-like “fear box” test.  But why?  Why are there truly supernatural diviners and why do they “prepare” young Michael for his future challenges (i.e., the Tall Man)?  Why does the Tall Man turn into a young woman, why always in a lavender dress, and why not someone else?

SIDEBAR with SPOILERS:  There’s a lot going on here.  The Tall Man is reanimating human corpses as evil compact dwarves so that their now denser bodies can handle the greater gravity of another planet, in which the dwarves serve as slaves.  We don’t know why, or to do what, or exactly where or for whom.  This is all somehow revealed to Michael (through a telepathic link perhaps) when he momentarily passes the portal and witnesses the harsh world on the other side.  Is it Hell, or another planet in a nearby solar system?  Are there other portals?  Is the Tall Man the head bad guy, or the equivalent of a Vegas pit boss or regional salesman/recruiter?  Who knows?  After watching this, we sure don’t!  As far as ambitious stories go, Phantasm is like the horror Avatar (2009) of the 1970s.  Unfortunately, only so much can be revealed with 88 minutes and a humble budget.
In the end, Reggie is consoling Michael that all of this (i.e., the entire movie’s events) was a bad dream, that Jody died in a car accident and that he would take care of him.  Then it ends much as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) subsequently would, with the Tall Man inexplicably and randomly getting his due. “Booooooooooooy!”

This film felt scary when I saw it 20 years ago, but unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) the scares definitely didn’t survive the test of time.  However, the eerie atmosphere, intriguing original story and special effects continue to impress me.  Also, as satisfyingly unusual as this story is, by today’s standards it feels sloppily told and haphazardly stitched together.  That said, I remain quite impressed with this original product.  This film may not feel organized, but it still has a lot of good to offer the genre and its story stands out even today.

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