Look Back in Angus: Confessions of a "Phantasm" Phanboy
The funeral is about to begin... Sir!
In movies, it’s often much too easy to see the pivotal moment coming; in real life, we rarely do. In fact, we’re usually blindsided by it, and I must admit I prefer it that way. Case in point...
Summer, 1980, Kingston, Ontario, Canada: a bunch of very wasted teenagers sardine themselves into somebody’s parents’ puke-green hatchback (a Mercury Bobcat, if you must know) and head out to the drive-in. Their mission is twofold: (a) see Halloween, that new horror film everyone’s talking about and (b) get even more wasted. Two hours later, the verdict is unanimous: Halloween rules. So does John Carpenter. So does Jamie Lee Curtis, even though she keeps her top on throughout the entire film. The delinquents in question have never heard of the second film on the evening’s bill, but given their current condition, no one is in a big hurry to go home.
Without fanfare - hell, without any opening credits, even - a stark, red logo now appears over black on the drive-in screen, framed idiomatically by the night sky: PHANTASM. Ten minutes in, the delinquents are mesmerised by this atmospheric and unpredictable gem they’ve stumbled across; after thirty minutes, they’re reassuring each other that the whole thing isn’t just a hallucination. Jaws drop as they watch a young boy being chased around a mausoleum by killer dwarves and airborne metallic brain-drillers... and what’s the story on this huge, sinister undertaker guy? By the time it’s all over, one delinquent - a gangly, pallid longhair in an AC/DC shirt - is convinced that he’s just seen the best horror film ever. Even then, of course, he has no idea that by the time he hits his late thirties, he’ll have seen Phantasm over fifty times. For better or worse on this night, a Phanboy is born.
Although writer/director Don Coscarelli already had two independent films (Kenny and Company and Jim The World’s Greatest) under his belt prior to starting work on Phantasm in the late seventies, he was barely into his twenties. His first horror film would be a modest low-budget effort (around $300,000) destined for the then-lucrative drive-in and grindhouse circuit. It would chronicle the misadventures of two recently orphaned brothers (Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury) and their ice cream vendor friend (Reggie Bannister) who investigate some mysterious goings-on at a mortuary in their small Oregon town; the film would be an inventive and infectious marriage of gothic horror, sci-fi, old-style boy’s adventure stories, absurdism and the buddy film. It would also introduce horror icon-in-waiting Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man, a time-travelling, dimension-jumping grave robber who re-animates corpses for use as slave labour.
Down the years, horror has enjoyed an on-off romance with surrealism, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Carnival of Souls to The Exorcist to A Nightmare On Elm Street and beyond. The late seventies, however, saw surrealism in horror at a low ebb; this was the era of Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, all of which featured their share of bizarre images and situations and often flirted with absurdity as a purely atmospheric device (particularly evident in Texas Chain Saw) but stuck resolutely to logical narrative. Phantasm flew in the face of contemporary trends in the genre, gleefully tossing us headlong into the dreams and hallucinations (or were they...?) of its characters, causing us to constantly second-guess our own perceptions. It would also prove that graphic violence and subtle atmospherics could not only coexist in a film but actually compliment each other. Coscarelli, of course, wasn’t content to stop there; he also served us up a parable about family, friendship, loyalty and - in the sequels - the ugly reality of betrayal. Two decades and three sequels later, Phantasm commands a huge and fanatical following worldwide - spawning dozens of websites and, last year, a fan convention - an outcome Coscarelli swears up and down he never anticipated.
...and you’re a bald, middle-aged ex-ice cream vendor.
Nearly a decade would pass before the release of Phantasm II, again written and directed by Coscarelli and featuring Scrimm and Bannister reprising their roles while James LeGros replaced Michael Baldwin in the role of Mike. (Trivia: LeGros was chosen over a young and unknown Brad Pitt.) The sequel begins with Mike being released from a mental hospital seven years after we last saw him, unable to make even Reggie - whose memory seems to have been wiped - believe his story. Reggie gets his comeuppance almost immediately when his wife and daughters are killed by the Tall Man; thoroughly convinced now, he agrees to help Mike search for the Tall Man and his minions. Mike is also looking for Liz (Paula Irvine), a girl to whom he is psychically linked who has also run afoul of the Tall Man. Reggie - largely relegated to zany sidekick status in the first film - really blossoms into a legitimate leading character here (somewhere between a father figure and an adopted older brother), with the likable Bannister proving his talents more than equal to the task. In some (if not all) respects, this one stands out as the best in the series; while still relatively low-budget, Phantasm II had studio backing and the production values are significantly higher. The first film’s trademarks are all present and accounted for: Scrimm returns as the Tall Man, replete with his army of dwarves and new and improved flying metal spheres, and Coscarelli’s penchants for mortuaries, muscle cars and wonderfully improbable homemade weaponry are abundant as well. While retaining the characterization and atmospherics of the original, the sequel benefits from quicker pacing and near-relentless action from start to finish, and while no box office records were broken, Phantasm II met with immediate and unanimous approval from Phans old and new.
Picture that - the three of us facing down the forces of evil.
Released straight to video in 1994, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead featured Michael Baldwin returning as Mike, who is about to discover that he’s much more than a victim of the Tall Man; he’ll learn now that he’s actually an integral part of the villain’s plan. This one picks up at the very instant Phantasm II ends, with the supposedly vanquished Tall Man suddenly reappearing to murder Liz and nearly kill Mike and Reggie in a car wreck. The cat-and-mouse game continues as our protagonists receive some unexpected help from the ghost of Mike’s long-dead older brother Jody, again protrayed by Bill Thornbury. Mortals joining the fight this time are a young boy (the engaging Kevin Connors) who has lost his parents to the Tall Man, and a tough, resourceful ex-soldier (Gloria Lynne Henry). While Lord of the Dead isn’t without some fine ingredients - most notably the same manic energy that propelled Phantasm II as well as some very slick effects and the trademark elaborate set pieces - Coscarelli’s over-reliance on cheap jokes nearly derails it. Humour was certainly abundant in (and integral to) the first two films, but the absurdity of various situations was allowed to speak for itself without being punctuated with an endless supply of one-liners. While it would be both unfair and inaccurate to accuse Lord of the Dead of favouring style over substance, there’s no getting around the fact that when the series is three films deep, we deserve more answers (or at least more development) than this one provides. Still, Coscarelli deserves props for resisting the temptation to simply rewrite the rules for the sake of convenience.
Things took a strange turn behind the scenes a year or so after Lord of the Dead was released: Phans fairly salivated when rumours began circulating that screenwriter Roger Avary, fresh off an Oscar win for co-writing Pulp Fiction, was collaborating on a new Phantasm script with Coscarelli. This was an unprecedented development, considering that Coscarelli had always maintained tight creative control over the series, especially after his disastrous experience with meddlesome studio execs on his 1982 feature Beastmaster. Word went around that the Avary/Coscarelli collaboration would be an epic final chapter in which the Tall Man has taken over most of North America - Phantasm meets The Stand, with a dash of Escape From New York. Coscarelli maintained he could bring the whole thing off for a budget of less than $10 million; it’s a pretty paltry sum by current standards and yet most industry insiders agreed that Coscarelli’s claim was credible, given his track record for delivering films that belied their meager funding, always on time and under budget. This above all seemed to guarantee that Phantasm 2012 (working title) would go into production in very short order - well, that’s how it seemed, anyway.
Each week, it seemed, a new rumour would circulate about who was financing the new Phantasm and when it would go into production; right on cue, word would arrive a short time later that the deal had fallen through, but now someone else was interested... ad nauseum. Whether as a stopgap to sustain audience interest or out of sheer frustration, Coscarelli eventually went to his backup plan: a completely different, self-penned script that could be produced for peanuts (reputedly under $700,000, the lowest budget since the original). This new script was also said to be constructed to dovetail chronologically with the Avary script, as Coscarelli remained optimistic that the epic would eventually be made. The cameras rolled and, late in 1998, Phantasm: OblIVion was unleashed.
Seeing is easy. Understanding? That takes a little more time.
While the third installment had met with some criticism over its flippant tone, OblIVion would prove genuinely controversial, dividing Phans sharply over its relative merits. Diffuse and non-linear, it’s simultaneously the most ambitious film in the series to date and the most low-key; the sublimely nightmarish opening sequence alone easily ranks among the best work Coscarelli’s ever done, and yet this film utilizes fewer big effects than the others. Once again, the action kicks off at the precise moment that the previous film concludes - damn, these are fun to watch back to back! Mike swipes a hearse and flees into the California desert, convinced that he’s doomed but determined to fight to the bitter end and find some answers in the process; after some prodding from a disembodied Jody, Reggie reluctantly gives chase in his cherished Hemicuda. Stripped down and almost unrelentingly dark, OblIVion’s time-jumping narrative makes it the first film in the series that’s absolutely guaranteed to baffle those who haven’t seen the first three. Long-faithful Phans, however, are in for some real treats, not least of which is the revelation of the Tall Man’s true identity... well, not quite, but at least we finally discover who he once was, even if the exact circumstances surrounding his transformation remain largely unknown. Baldwin is particularly memorable in this installment, establishing Mike as a classic tragic hero, physically and emotionally battered but determined to go down swinging. Far and away the most impressive aspect of OblIVion is the way Coscarelli seamlessly incorporates a number of unused scenes from the original Phantasm as flashbacks - it’s astounding to see Baldwin at the ages of twelve and thirty-two in the same film. (Bannister and Scrimm, on the other hand, hardly seem to have aged at all.) This device is especially effective during the final sequence, in which the film doesn’t so much end as dissolve, a significant departure from its cliffhanger predecessors.
Let me release you from this imperfect flesh...
Even if the much-anticipated final chapter is never made, Phantasm remains the only horror franchise that’s genuinely worth following. The lofty mantle of auteur has been recklessly bestowed on a lot of marginally worthy horror directors, but Don Coscarelli remains one of the few who can wear it legitimately. How many other series in our beloved genre have been entirely written, directed and produced by the same person, as well as retaining the same core group of lead actors? This is a family affair in the classic sense; even the closing credits reveal a lot of familiar names among the crew.
Relentless sequelization has rendered Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees even more one-dimensional and robotic than they were in their respective debuts while Freddy Krueger has been homogenised into an utterly unfrightening cartoon - death by marketing. The Tall Man, however, still inspires genuine dread; two decades have not diminished the sinister charisma of Angus Scrimm. Inducted into Fangoria’s Hall of Fame several years back, Scrimm remains the face of Phantasm, standing at the forefront of numerous visual and thematic trademarks associated with the series. It’s an odd success story - in four films over twenty years, he’s slowly made the transition from cult favourite to bona fide horror icon. In an age of crass, wisecracking horror movie villains-turned-hucksters, the Tall Man retains a curious dignity, a spiritual descendant of the classic monsters of Universal’s heyday. Scrimm’s genial offscreen persona has helped make him a popular attraction at horror conventions and film fests worldwide, but there’s no disputing that it’s the Tall Man who keeps Phans turning out in droves year after year.
The great paradox of the series is that while the relationship between Mike and the Tall Man is the backbone of the story, the exact nature of that relationship has never been made entirely clear. (This is probably the single hottest topic of speculation on countless Phantasm message boards.) When first meet our adolescent hero, he’s still reeling from the deaths of his parents and in a panic over the impending departure of his older brother; it’s no secret that the kid has some well-founded abandonment issues. While the Tall Man is first and foremost a personification of death, Mike also seems to view him as the embodiment of all the destruction and uncertainty that has thrown his life into chaos; he’s not unlike the Death card in a Tarot deck, a harbinger of sudden and often calamitous change.
It’s never over!
Will a fifth Phantasm ever see daylight? Insiders remain relatively optimistic, although the project has been shelved for the time being as Coscarelli begins work on a new film, rumoured to be an adaption of Joe Lansdale’s story "Bubba-Ho Tep." Meanwhile, Phans are rejoicing over news that Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame has been confirmed to star opposite Scrimm and Bannister should the next chapter be greenlit.
Twenty-plus years and multiple viewings later, I’m well aware of Phantasm’s many flaws. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to name another film (or series of films) that’s so flawed and yet works so well. Serious lapses in logic? Sure. Continuity problems? Hell, yeah. Regardless, Phantasm’s hold on me remains as strong as ever, my deep affection for it absolutely undiminished. Several decades back, a simple trip to the drive-in exploded into a lifelong obsession; as Reggie says, "I enlisted for the duration."