Monday Movie: Phantasm, by David Bax
Usually, when we describe a movie as a “children’s film,” what we mean is that it’s something adults can be comfortable with children watching. But Don Coscarelli’s creepy, gory, thoroughly weird Phantasm, from 1979, is a different animal. No sane parent would willingly show it to a pre-teen but it probably owes most of its cult status to the kind of oddball kids who stayed up late to sneak viewings on cable or illicitly procured VHS tapes. Those kids (like myself) are grown up now but they remember the way Phantasm made them feel and how, for all its supposedly adult content, it tapped into some primal fears that are universal to the experience of being a child.
Phantasm remains a difficult film to categorize. Of course, it belongs to the horror genre but that term does a poor job of summing up its contents. It evokes the feeling of provincial dread familiar from Halloween as well as the paranoid small town suspense of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a boys-without-their-parents adventure like Stand by Me. It’s a slasher. It’s a monster movie. And, perhaps most memorably, it terrifies not by lurking in the shadows and leaping out but by blowing down walls with the assaultive surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
To be honest, this mixture makes Phantasm an often shambolic affair. Despite its amorphous structure, though, what carries it forward is Coscarelli’s inspiration and ambition. We’re dealing with less a story than a working through of themes (though there are still some crackerjack narrative beats, like the protagonist improvising an explosive device to escape a locked room). Two of the three leads, thirteen-year-old Mike and his older brother Jody, have recently lost their parents. Mike is the real main character here and most of the events and imagery can be interpreted as a young boy processing his first real experience with death. The villain is a mortician and the portal to hell (or what have you) is in the funeral home. This is not just because that’s an inherently scary location but because Mike is coming to grips with the inevitability of death; not just his own but the fact that everyone he knows will stop being the person he recognizes and pass into an unknown and unknowable state. For all the jump scares and chilling visual strokes, Phantasm’s defining dose of fear is an existential one. And children understand that far better than we allow ourselves to believe.