Weekly Horror: Phantasm

Cole Speidel - October 5, 2016

This marks the first in a series of articles. Throughout the month of October, Moviegoer writers will be sharing their thoughts on a number of horror films.

When Brad Pettigrew, Editor-in-Chief of The Moviegoer, asked if I was interested in seeing a movie at the PFS Roxy, I didn't ask questions. Truly, not a single one: I trusted his judgment; if Brad was seeing a movie, it was probably worth seeing. Brad began laughing when I admitted I hadn't even looked up the trailer.

The movie? A screening of Phantasm, the 1979 'cult classic,' written, directed, photographed, co-produced, and edited by Don Coscarelli. The film, recently restored to 4k resolution by J.J. Abrams's Bad Robot Studios, follows 13-year-old Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) in the aftermath of several deaths within his family. After a number of strange occurrences at the local funeral parlor. Mike, along with his older brother Jody and Jody's friend, Reggie, begin to investigate the parlor's mysterious Tall Man as the unsavory character responsible for the ghastly occurrences. The supernatural, extraterrestrial, and quaintly suburban combine to frame an authentically American horror film.

Among the youngest people in the theater (besides the adolescent children of adult audience members), I spent most of the time thinking about which aspects of the movie rendered it a 'classic.' The movie abounds in contemporary pop culture references, with those from Dune and Star Wars pithily summed in the moniker of Jody's preferred dive bar, 'Dune's Cantina.' Bell-bottom jeans and an admittedly sexy 1971 Plymouth Barracuda do not, however, confine Phantasm's appeal to its initial audience. The supernatural, extraterrestrial, and quaintly suburban combine to frame an authentically American horror film.

While I found the pacing slow, the plot underwhelming, and the acting lacking, Phantasm sketched a distinct atmosphere at once comfortable and familiar but tinged with a nonlinear surrealism. Mike plays the quintessentially bothersome little brother, following Jody around and recruiting Jody's help against the Tall Man. The brothers' relationship works well on screen and insulates the core of the film from its other shortcomings, broadening its appeal across middle class white America [I didn't see a single actor who wasn't white]. In addition, the Tall Man, played by the late Angus Scrimm, stood out as particularly unique and the best performance of the film; he both contained and transcended several villainous archetypes, from the grouchy old Scrooge to the malevolent mastermind.

Some of the more successful elements of the film seem to be mere happenstance; Brad wondered if they "made a hit by accident." I think so. Phantasm's appeal rests in its nature as a snapshot of contemporary America coupled with its adventurous, if chaotic, inclusion of iterations on popular themes and objects borrowed from across genres and films. The result is a unique film perfectly suited for impressionable adolescents just beginning to watch horror movies; it seems to be about everything while it is actually about nothing at all.

N.B.: From Brad's comments as well as the self-congratulatory and underwhelming trailer for Phantasm V: Ravager that preceded the screening, I learned that Reggie, played by Reggie Bannister, becomes the main character of the franchise. I still cannot fathom this development; I found Reggie insufferable and odd he has a ponytail, drives an ice cream truck, and uses the phrase, "We hot as love." Phantasm V's trailer shows he hasn't changed his haircut since 1979, which is unfortunate. For these perfectly adequate reasons, I will not be watching Phantasm II-V.

Cole Speidel

Cole Speidel is a senior studying International Relations and Russian. He’s written articles and plays, and writes regularly for campus publications, most recently the SIR Journal of International Relations. He is a member of the Penn theater community, acting in plays and short films.