I've heard good things about Phantasm, though the good things have rarely amounted to anything past “There are good things”. This 1979 film seems to exist in a sort of limbo between more well-known horror and the obscurer cult classics, thanks to the original films popularity and the ongoing franchise that has released it's latest sequel just this year, summing up to one every decade. All I know about these films is that there is a tall man, and balls. SO, lured in with the promise of tall men and their balls, I decided to take a look.
The film opens with two folks messily boning in a graveyard under some key lighting. This is, of course a horrible idea. The man is quickly tuckered out from this ordeal, and seems so wrapped up in his post coital haze that he doesn't notice his paramour pull out a knife and stab him, before transforming into a man. I'm pretty sure this is how 4Chan thinks transsexuals operate.
The next day, a really awkward shot of a pair of bad actors informs us that the funeral for Tommy, the stabee in this opening scene, is being held today. They clumsily recount how they were best friends and that Tommy's death has been officially been credited as a suicide. Yes, it's such a tragedy that he finally collapsed under the weight of his own depression and stabbed himself four or five times in the chest while lying down in a graveyard. Funny how many people take that way out in this town. We cut in between one of the friends from outside, Jody and a secondary, unidentified character out in the cemetery as they both try to pay their respects.
Jody is walking around an admittedly very cool and well shot masoleum while the kid is respectfully riding his noisy dirtbike around the graveyard. Such little information or context is given in these shots, that I was unsure if the two subjects were separate characters, or the same man at different points in his life, hearkening back to time that he's spent at this graveyard. But no, these two are brothers, and both of them seem to be pursued or at least observed by these scuffling black shapes that keep on ducking out of sight before they can get a good look at them. This would be vaguely creepy if not for the fact that they all sound like a badger trying to get into a can of Chef Boyardee's. Jody follows the odd badger noises and the synth-heavy soundtrack makes it sound like someone has collapsed on the organ. Then the disturbingly tall undertaker brings his hand down on Jody's shoulder like a damn hatchet and lets him know that the funeral has started. I swear, that shoulder grab has got to be the simultaneously most prevalent but least talked about cliche in horror movie history. Why does everyone do this? And the thing is, it's usually a trusted friend or family member that chooses to greet their partner by nabbing their shoulder like a demon spider. What would prompt an otherwise benign character to act like a damn psycho? At least the Undertaker here has a decent reason, given that he is clearly a threatening, intimidating person.
The funeral concludes, with Jody's little brother Mike spying in on it from the bushes. Jody didn't seem to want Mike to attend and see Tommy, a family friend, in this state. But as we will clearly see throughout the film, there doesn't seem to be any way for Jody to get Mike to do a goddamn thing. As the mourners dissipate, Mike lingers and gets his first red flag that something is up when he sees the undertaker pick up Tommy's coffin under one arm and slide it into the back of his hearse. The kid bolts, though it is clear he was detected by the undertaker. And no, not the WWE Undertaker. I'm not sure if that would make this movie better or worse.
Heading back into town, Mike stops at a Bed and Breakfast of some sort with a big white hand sign. Crap, if Torgo hobbles out the front door and offers to take his bags, I'm leaving. But no. Inside is another lousy actor and her grandmother, enjoying tea and both carrying odd star birthmarks. These two characters and their possible psychic powers will never be mentioned or seen again in this film. Mike talks about his brother and good God, this film cannot stop jumpily cutting in between two or three different scenes that aren't connected well enough for me to understand what the hell is going on. Admittedly, that 71' Hemicuda that Jody drives into the scene IS awesome, but I'm still not entirely sure about what's going on here. Then we flash BACK to the funeral, where Mike crashed his bike fleeing from the undertaker, then it's back again to the fortune teller's room. Good god, Memento had a less confusing timeline.
This is Dune! This is exactly Dune! This stupid kid is getting Jom-Gabbar'd and doesn't even get the courtesy of a dumb name for it! How did they think they could get away with ripping off such a clear plot point from this science-fiction work? I haven't even READ all of Dune and I know exactly where this came from. But yeah, Mike manages to conquer his fear and withdraw his hand, then heads off to go be the Quizaxkataract or whatever. The two ladies just giggle at each other, and I think it's clear that they were just messing with him.
By the time Mike gets home, the ponytailed guy from the funeral has showed up in an ice cream truck that I would positively NOT purchase so much as a popsicle from and is jamming with Jody on the front porch of their sizable house that Jody can of course afford the upkeep and property taxes of all on his own because fuck you 1979. Meanwhile back at the graveyard, an unnamed blonde lady goes to the mausoleum and passes through a strange black door before screaming. Okay.
Jody heads to a bar, with Mike still engaging in his favourite hobby; snooping in on his brother. Doesn't this kid have a life? Scenes like this bit at the bar, again, are quite well shot. While the performances in this movie aren't really anything to be impressed by, this movie clearly had a hell of a cinematographer. Jody talks up a creepily familiar blonde lady and they head off to the cemetery to knock boots. Mike follows, clearly not deterred at the thought of seeing his big brother about to get some action and watches from the bushes as these two start to get hot and heavy. The lady flashes her screen-filling boobs again and both Cody and Mike, who I am amazed can even see anything from his vantage point, get equally excited. I suppose if you paid an actress to show off her breasts, you might as well use em as many times as you can. Mike continues to watch, even though it's clear that from his position, all he's gonna see is his brother's thrusting ass, until he hears another badger rooting around somewhere behind him. The thing finally springs out from the underbrush and....it's a Jawa. It's just a Jawa.
Mike runs screaming, right past his brother. Jody to his credit pulls himself off of his date and runs after him, asking what the hell is going on. Somehow these two just glaze past the whole “watching you about to have sex” thing and Jody gives Mike the car keys, I suppose expecting him to drive himself home. He returns, only to find that the mysterious woman has disappeared.
I have a question. We know from the prologue that the blonde lady with Jody is actually The Undertaker in disguise, and was presumably about to murder Jody like he did with Tommy. How often does he get away with this stunt? How many stabbing related suicides can one small town have before things start to get suspicious? Do you think that Undertaker here might have gotten to like it by now?
“Yess, I shall lure these hapless fools to their deaths by turning into a hot, nubile, twenty-something blonde and hooking up with them at a bar. I shall take on a woman's young, supple form....for a little while, then lure this man out to the graveyard and kill him! But only after he's given me a proper nailing. A good solid screw. Yes, he needs to ride me hard like the dirty little girl that I am....goodness, OH, I may have to go take a shower....hmm. I shall shower as the girl. Yes. Need to make sure I know exactly how that body is put together. Ah, yes.”
My point is that everyone in this town is kind of a creep.
That night, Mike has a nightmare about the Undertaker and his zombies, then even runs into the guy the next day. Man, this dude his huge, and apparently dresses is suits that are purposefully a size too small for him as he walks around on marble flooring that someone set up for him in advance to get those ominous footsteps. These strange encounters continue that night, as Mike is working on the car (Considering that it's a 70's Plymouth, that level of upkeep is not surprising) another Jawa sneaks past and collapses the car on him. Mike manages to wriggle free after stubbing his brother's toe with a mallet, and is determined to head back to the funeral parlour and find out exactly what the hell is happening, gearing up with a knife strapped to his leg.
His sneaky approach to the parlour is marked by him kicking a window in and slipping into the basement. I'm not entirely sure what he's intending to find here as he sneaks into the upstairs showroom and narrowly avoids a janitor in a hat. Even after his close call, he continues to follow them closely with that special blend of snoppy and stupid that we see in horror movies that I like to refer to as “Snoopid”. He pursues the strange noises that permeate the place into the masoleum and then the black door that we saw earlier. But before he can investigate, a strange floating ball appears, sprouting prongs and looking like a rejected Doctor Who villain.
Wait, there WAS a Doctor Who villain like this. I withdraw my comment.
The ball flies at Mike, who dodges it but is grabbed by the Janitor. The ball pursues and Mike manages to avoid it as it hits the janitor in the face and...oh, JEEZ.
This this digs into his forehead with its little prongs and then a drill pokes out, going right between his eyes and...just SHOOTING blood out the back of it like he's a maple tree being tapped. It's amazing.
The Tall Man shows up again, just sprinting after Mike and nearly grabbing him before a door get slammed on his hand. Mike cuts off the protruding fingers in a panic and sticks them in a box, even as they seep bright yellow, clearly inhuman blood.
Jody finds Mike the next morning, collapsed in the stairwell with a shotgun in his lap. Damn, this big brother seems like a really shitty guardian. You blow of your kid to go get laid in a graveyard, you give him the keys to your muscle car so that you can you can try to finish up with your one-night stand and now, it seems as though you leave loaded weapons within grabbing range. He wakes Mike up and, to his credit, immediately believes him when he is shown the twitching severed finger. He suggest that they take their proof to the local sheriff's office, but when Mike goes to grab the finger, it has turned into some black scarab with a little demon face. Again, this movie has gone from confusing editing to straight up bizarre leaps in logic that I am just expected to take in stride. They're lucky I'm such a good sport about all of this. Mike traps the bug in a shirt and he and his brother improv with it for a little bit before finally shoving it into the garbage disposal which takes a few tries to actually mince the damn thing. Reggie shows up to ask what the hell is going on, and it's time for business. Fortunately, this house is packing as Jody grabs a Colt off the wall and gives his brother a quick, half decent crash course in shotgun etiquette. Jody makes a fun for the funeral parlour, seemingly abandoning the plan to contact the Sheriff. I thought that was a decent plan.
Jody enters the funeral parlour via the window that Mike kicked in, and barely makes twenty feet before another Jawa show up. They briefly tussle and Jody empties a clip into the thing before deciding to beat it, the hearse in hot pursuit. He tries to fire at the seemingly non existent driver before Mike swings by in the Cuda, clearly not listening to a damn thing his brother says. Jody piles in and the chase is on, before he manages to blow apart the car's engine with the 12 Gauge. The rig careens off the road and crashes, and Jody heads back to look it over. Not only does it turn out that a Jawa was driving the car the whole time, but it's actually Tommy!
Realizing that this is a bit much even for him, Jody calls in Reggie, hoping to use his truck to contain the still twitching Tommy abomination. After loading up the atommynation, Reggie gets a jumpscare from a previously unseen landlady that promptly goes the way of the starfaced fortune tellers and the trio reconnoitres to discuss their next move. Jody sends Reggie to the Sherrif with the Tommy and sends Mike to the nearby antique store where he'll be safe. It's there that Mike finds some old photographs and realizes that the Tall Man has been around for a very long time, at least since the 1800s. He makes the two girls manning the store take him home, where they run into Reggie's overturned truck on the way. They barely have time to inspect it before one of the demon dwarves attacks them in the car, hijacking it and kidnapping the two girls as Mike narrowly escapes through the back window. We stumbles back home as Jody is gearing up to head out. Having had quite enough of all this wandering away bullshit, Jody just locks Mike in his room and wedges a screwdriver into the doorframe to keep him there. Mike is upset, but there is a pretty neat, nonverbal scene where he figures out how to construct a makeshift thunderstick out of a spare shotgun shell and a hammer, blowing a hole in the door and escaping. He makes for the front door, running right into the Tall Man, who has all ten fingers back and seems pretty pissed off. He gets grabbed and tossed into the back of the hearse, but still has the Colt that Jody left him with, using it to shoot his way out and take out the tires, causing the car to crash and fireball. Easily explosive cars seems to be another trend I'm running into in this series.
Meanwhile Jody is busy exhuming his parent's grave, but cannot bear to look inside. Mike on the other hand, does so, finding it empty. Another silver ball is zipping around the mausoleum during all of this, but Mike runs back into his brother, who blows it out of the air with a very impressive shot. Then Reggie of all people shows up. He claims to have escaped the dwarves and had been hiding in a coffin, even going so far as to have saved a basement full of captured girls. This is all so rushed, that either this is some sort of trap, or a pretty sizable scene got cut out of the film for time.
The group finally heads through the black door, revealing a wall of black barrels in a small, brightly lit white room, right next to a pair of small pillars on the far side. Jody inspects the barrels, finding each one to contain a dwarf, while Mike inspects the two pillars, discovering that they form a sort of invisible portal, while Reggie hangs back, ready to betray either of them if that's what he's planning. But instead, Mike reminds himself not to fear and enters the portal of his own accord, finding a doorway to Mars or something. Aliens! It was aliens all along! This is a neat, cosmic-horror twist that I actually appreciate. After getting pulled back through, Mike finally deduces the entire plan: The Tall Man either kills people or takes in the bodies of the recently deceased and reanimates them, compressing their bodies so that they can serve as slaves on his home world. They are compressed in order to survive the radiation and high gravity. This seems like a needlessly complicated interdimensional plan for just a bit of cheap labour.
The lights go out and more dwarves jump the boys, until everyone manages to get split up and the power returns. As Mike and Jody stumble around outside, Reggie gets the bright idea that the gate works the same way as a tuning fork and puts his hand on it to just...stop the vibrations. It works, and the whole place starts to collapse in the face of this. Jody and Mike meet up outside while Reggie runs into The Tall Man in the same blonde lady form as before, clearly just trying to get a little extra lady time in but taking advantage of this to stab Reggie. Mike and Jody get away, but they aren't done yet. Jody heads up to the old mine shaft, planning to disguise it and lure the otherwise unstoppable Tall Man into it. He actually promises to come back for Mike this time, though it seems like the fifth time that this kid has snuck away on his own on the past two days. Mike, of course, runs into The Tall Man again and manages to escape the house. Again, his attempt to “Not Fear” strays him awry when fleeing, directing him in corpse filled quicksand and nearly getting him stabbed by Tall Man is blonde lady form. I think I can safely say that those two ladies were just fucking with him. He manages to spot and jump the covered up mineshaft, which Tall Man just stumbles into, sliding down just as Jody plugs the hole with some conveniently timed falling rocks. Then, with the danger finally defeated, Mike....wakes up?This is a twist that kind of comes right the hell out of nowhere. He wanders downstairs and recounts his odd dream to Reggie, of all people, who is still alive and has been his guardian since his brother Judy died in a car wreck. Whaaaaaat?
I appreciate that the movie is trying to blow my mind with this, but the problem is that this twist wasn't really set up all that much. Sure, Mike very briefly talks about his fears that Jody will leave him behind, but there isn't an overarching theme of loss or trying to let go like there was in a film like Pet Sematary. This is further compounded when Reggie suggests a change of scenery to Mike and sends him off to pack. He heads upstairs, only to find the The Tall Man is real, and right behind him. And then he gets pulled through a mirror, then the movie's over.
Okay, I appreciate that this film tried to throw reality into question with the end of this film, but I still am not sure what happened for all of this. The big "it was all a dream" twist doesn't really have a lot of time to sink in before the rug is pulled out from under us again by the ending. If it had a bit more foreshadowing, beyond a single snatch of dialogue and the general dreamlike quality of the visuals, I might be more receptive. But again, the very ending where the Tall Man shows up again isn't clever, the ending to Inception is clever. This is just confusing and makes me think that the director was sort of making up the film as he went along. If we would like to talk about strengths, this movie has a very unique, surreal tone to it that is helped with the strange visuals, excellent cinematography and electronic soundtrack. I'm reminded of some more independent European horror when I watch this film, even touching at films like Suspiria. Also, I'm a sucker for cosmic horror, so that's always a plus in my book. On the other side of the coin, the directing is pretty awkward when it isn't well framed, and the acting ranks from "meh" to terrible. It's easy to see why this movie is the cult classic that it is known as, being distinct in it's look and subject matter and worth checking out if you're in the mood.