Movie Discussion: Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979)

  • Monthly Theme: Genre Classicsphantasm_xlg
  • The Film: Phantasm
  • Alternate title: n/a
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: March 28, 1979
  • Studio: New Breed Productions
  • Distributer: AVCO Embassy Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: $12 million
  • Budget: $300,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Don Coscarelli
  • Producers: D.A. Coscarelli & Paul Pepperman
  • Screenwriter: Don Coscarelli
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Don Coscarelli
  • Make-Up/FX: Paul Pepperman
  • Music: Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave
  • Part of a series? Yes. The first film in the Phantasm franchise, followed by Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998) and Phantasm V: Ravager (2014).
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror icon Angus Scrimm (Phantasm II, Subspecies).
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: Special Jury Award at the 1979 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “If this one doesn’t scare you… you’re already dead!”
  • The Lowdown: Writer/director Don Coscarelli is responsible for three objects of bonafide cult worship – 1982’s beefcake fantasy film The Beastmaster, 2002’s Elvis-battles-the-Mummy buddy flick Bubba Ho-Tep and Phantasm (his latest movie, John Dies at the End, an adaptation of Cracked writer David Wong’s cult novel, seems poised to also enter the cult canon). Phantasm was Coscarelli’s first horror movie after two family/teen-oriented films. It concerns Mike, a 13-year-old boy who has a troubled relationship with his older brother Jody after their parents are killed in an accident. Mike begins to suspect something strange is going on at Morningside Cemetery after he witnesses the undertaker behaving strangely and glimpses strange creatures out of the corner of his eye. Soon Mike and Jody are battling dwarves, running from murderous silver spheres, and finding portals to other dimensions. Phantasm blends reality and dream-states together to create a very incoherent but strangely compelling experience.

If you haven’t seen Phantasm our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Kristine: I know this is unorthodox, but I would like to open our discussion of Phantasm by rating it. And my rating for this movie is: This is a horror movie classic because WHY exactly?????????????? Dude, Phantasm sucks.

Sean: Oh. My. God.

Kristine: I loathed it. More than anything else we have ever watched.

Sean: Loathed?

Movie to audience: “Ummm, all ladies are witches.”

Kristine: Yes. It is ridiculous and dumb beyond all belief.

Sean: Tell me everything about why you feel this way.

Kristine: What is there to say?

Sean: Should the blog entry for this movie just read, “Dum dum” and that’s it?

Kristine: Yes, please.

Sean: Kristine.

Kristine: You need to explain this movie to me because it was dreadful. I cannot imagine how or why you thought it was necessary for me to see it. Dwarves + another dimension + killer orb + undertaker + killer girl = WTF and also, Who cares?

Sean: It’s probably been 15 or so years since I’ve watched this movie and I have to admit, it doesn’t hold up as well as I had hoped. When we were watching it, I was dying of embarrassment.

Did Jody take a dump on my head like I asked or is that a giant bug?

Kristine: Good. You should be ashamed. Deeply.

Sean: Yeah, it was hard to face the truth that this movie is deeply flawed. I had remembered it as a kind of masterpiece of fantasy horror. But seeing it through my 36-year-old eyes, it was pretty ridiculous. But, I had to try to get to the bottom of why it was embarrassing me when we watched it, so I re-watched it on my own the next day and re-discovered a little bit of love for it.

Kristine: What bit?

Sean: I will admit, it is hopelessly dated. The un-self-conscious 1970s-ness of Jody and Reggie was pretty tough to take.

Kristine: Umm. This movie would suck in any year.

Sean: I don’t think you understand what a serious cult object this movie is. It is adored.

Kristine: The adoration of the elite few will not sway me, Sean. I won’t be bullied. And also: pedophilia!

Sean: Oh, I know.. The final scene in front of the fire?

Kristine: That Ice Cream Man.

The non-traditional American family.

Sean: Reggie the Ice Cream Man and Mike embracing?

Kristine: When Regge is like, “I wanna take care of you?” and they are kissing. Kissing on the face. It was disgusting.

Sean: I thought they were going to start frenching.

Kristine: They did, after the camera panned away.

Sean: Tears are streaming down my face from laughing right now. When Reggie is telling Mike, “We need a change of scenery. Why don’t you and me hit the road for a couple of weeks?” it seriously reads like a scene out of The Pedophile’s Handbook. He is basically telling Mike that he is planning on anally violating him.

Kristine: Also that whole ending just makes no sense. This movie plays the whole “Um, it was all a dream… or was it?” card and it is terrible. If I cared, I might try to untangle the narrative layers of what was a dream, what was real, but I can’t be bothered.

Aging personified as a giant forehead.

Sean: Yeah, the ending sucks. It’s funny because the very, very last scene of the dwarves breaking through the mirror and pulling Mike into the blackness terrified me as a kid. But rewatching the last 10 minutes, you realize how shoddily made the whole movie is. Like there’s this absurdly long cutaway to Mike like, standing in a bright daylit graveyard over Jody’s headstone and it goes on 30 seconds longer than it should. It feels like something out of an Ed Wood movie. But the final jumpscare also reminded me that this movie does stage these weird scenes that tap into some deep primal terrors straight from the subconscious and are the legitimate stuff of nightmares – hands coming out of holes to grab and pull you into some off-screen space, strange figures looming over your bed, etc. Remember when Jody gets pulled into some absurdly small opening in the mausoleum? As a kid watching this, all those little moments really got to something about nightmares and the dream logic of the subconscious. Phantasm walks the line between David Lynchian surrealism and shoddy storytelling and falls over onto the wrong side of it far too often. But it does manage to get some stuff right. Those grabbing dwarf hands coming out of openings unexpectedly still unnerve me.

Kristine: Explain the fucking dwarves. So dumb. All I could think of was the loser writer who is responsible for this screenplay being like, ‘Oh and then he shrinks them into dwarves and puts them in barrels and then they go into another dimension. And are slaves.’ What? Why? Also, Reggie’s ponytail. Explain yourself. Now.

Mike’s wet dream, audience of one.

Sean: Ok, this is where we just might fundamentally disagree. Those kinds of weird, obsessively nerdy details really work for me. In fact, I might argue this movie is an example of a kind of extreme sci-fi-geek drag performance – gaudy, excessive, minutely detailed but a bit incoherent. It’s got a lot of gusto, but not a lot of common sense. I mean, this is where some significant cultural shifts in the last 30 years really might reshape the way this movie plays. In 1979, I would argue, the geeky sci-fi-loving nerd obsessive was a true cultural outcast and was, in a lot of ways, queer in the eyes of the mainstream. So a movie like Phantasm really was coming from the margins (and Phantasm really goes for it, and is unabashedly geeky and obsessive). But now the geek has taken over the mainstream. We’re living in a post-Lucas, post-Spielberg, post-Stan Lee America where fucking Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as captains of industry, Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams and Wes Anderson are anointed geniuses who make mainstream pop cinema and comic book characters destroy at the box office. The bizarre workings of the male nerd imagination are now something that can feel oppressive because it feels like part of a cultural hegemony. But there was a time when it might have felt radical and queer and bizarre in all the right ways. Phantasm, like I said earlier, hasn’t aged well for this and a host of other reasons. But it still has some freaky cool parts, right? I mean, did you think the silver sphere was cool? At all?

Kristine: No. This movie was not cool to any degree. Why was there a silver sphere? And if there was a silver sphere, why did the Tall Man (who was maybe a little scary) have to go around killing people?

They found this in the trash behind Jim Henson Studios.

Sean: The Tall Man freaked me out as a kid. I was just afraid of old men as a kid – if an old man was in a public bathroom, I would refuse to go in. This is where I think the movie just gets a lot of our instinctual, subconscious fears right. The fact that the lead villain in this movie is just some creepy old gray-haired man feels right somehow, and he is scary. He terrified me when I was young and I watched this. Just the way he chases Mike (who, can I just say, looks uncannily like a young Kristy McNichol) down the hallways really scared me.

Kristine: And how did the dwarves get out to kill people when they are trapped in barrels? And why was there the lady? I don’t get it and I don’t want to.

Sean: The lady was the Tall Man in disguise. This is one of the cooler genderfuck elements of the movie.

Kristine: I know that. But why did he have to disguise himself? Why didn’t he just use his orb?

Sean: Because the movie needed tits. The politics of desire in this movie are so weird and confused though. The camera lingers just as lovingly on Jody’s bare ass shimmying out of his jeans as it does on that woman’s bare breasts. By the way, her character is billed as “the Lady in Lavender” which has a kind of drag queen logic to it. This has a lot of homoeroticism for a movie that opens on a scene of damp tits shaking in a dark cemetery as some lady fucks a fat, ugly guy to death. But this movie also has no use for ladies, and the Lady in Lavender might just be the most obvious example of how paranoid this movie is about female sexuality. The only woman with power in this movie is the old, dried up crone lady who makes Mike shove his hand in a box that then clamps down on it and it hurts. I can’t think of a more obvious vaginal metaphor than that. Here is the plot of this movie, retold by me: A scrawny little queerboy named Mike has feminine and sexual feelings for his own brother, a hot piece of ‘70s rocker ass named Jody. An old lady makes Mike stick his hand in her scary box, reminding him of how gross and weird vaginas are. Mike runs around battling science fiction monsters as he grapples with his lust for Jody’s supple bare ass. Two girls of no consequence are brought into the movie only to be terrorized and abducted by horny dwarves. Then at the end, it was all a dream, and he is going to be raped for real by Reggie the Pedophile. The end.  Oh, and the Lady in Lavender flashed her tits a lot.

Dine with me.

Kristine: Well, Lady Lavender was ugly, for the record. Why didn’t the Tall Man disguise himself as a pretty lady?

Sean: I am dying.

Kristine: Good. You need to pay.

Sean: Stop punishing me.

Kristine: Explain your choices.

Sean: Well, I chose Phantasm because it has legendary status. I mean, if the concept of the blog is for you to enjoy a first-rate horror movie education, than we had to watch it.

Kristine: But why does it have such status?

Sean: Well, can you hold your sharp tongue while I try to make a case for the film? Your sharp, lashing tongue?

Kristine: Fine, but you are taming the shrew.

Sean: I will readily admit that this movie hasn’t held up. But I did still like a couple of things about it. Mostly, I think the musical score is great and truly creepy. For all its faults, Phantasm is original and not some carbon-copy horror movie. It’s got a bizarre, twisted imagination.

Kristine: Nerd imagination.

Reggie RAILS a tiny person FROM BEHIND.

Sean: So it isn’t some run-of-the-mill slasher or vampire movie. It really tries to do some weird and original shit. The sphere, the interdimensional body snatching, etc. It is ambitious on a very limited budget, and I admire it for that. Also, I love the wacked-out imaginative bits, like Kristy McNichol chopping off the Tall Man’s fingers and them turning into a bug. I mean, it does lead to that ridiculous scene of Jody whipping a cum-stained towel around, but still. And the silver sphere ejaculating brain blood all over the floor. And the weird tuning-fork-gateway to the Hell dimension. It’s all crazy and batshit and incoherent and I have a soft spot for that kind of excess. Also, the movie is a fine, though flawed, example of surrealist horror. It establishes a very unique and weird tone and has lots of strange dream-like sequences. Scenes where the line between the real and the dreamworld are blurred. I do think the movie suffers for not actually committing to that surrealist structure more blatantly. It tries too much to both have a plot, and be a series of discursive and strange set-pieces. I think its half-hearted attempts to have a traditional narrative structure actually weaken the movie. I think if it had been more surreal and more avant-garde, it would have worked better. But I actually am glad we watched this movie just as a reference point, especially for A Nightmare on Elm Street, which we’ll be watching soon.

Kristine: Sorry, but nothing you have said really convinces me that this was a decent movie. I just really found it ridiculous, and not in a fun way, like the giallos we’ve watched. It was deeply silly. I didn’t care about the characters, nothing they did made sense, and I felt like there was no pay-off at the end. The only redeeming thing I found in it was that the Tall Man was somewhat spooky when he was stomping around. That’s it. The silver sphere might have been cool if it was in another movie (a killer machine that stalks you is scary) and wasn’t just one of the many threats in this mess of a movie. I can’t explain why something like Argento’s Phenomena was a fun mess and Phantasm was a slog, but there it is.

Movie to audience: “No, really… umm…. heterosexuality!”

Sean: Do you give Phantasm any credit for its originality?

Kristine: Nah.

Sean: Would you rather re-watch this movie or Audition? [Editor’s Note: Takashi Miike’s Audition was the first horror movie Kristine and Sean ever watched for horror movie club (which later evolved into this blog) and they both HATED IT. So, it is a notorious reference point for suckitude.]

Kristine: Audition.

Sean: What?

Kristine: You ask, I answer.

Sean: So this is, according to you, the worst movie ever made.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Oh. Well, Phantasm, ladies and gents. Ta-da!

This movie’s nightmare: Sucked into a hole.

Kristine: Sorry. I can’t find anything interesting to say about it. I thought the furtive scuffling about of the dwarves was kind of scary at the beginning. I wanted to know what they were.

Sean: I was dying laughing during the fucking jam session that Jody and Reggie have, that weird musical interlude. Jody’s tight jeans.

Kristine: Yes, and the tiny hat.

Sean: Kristine, I just realized that as a little boy, the incest between the older brother and Kristy McNichol turned me on.

Kristine: When Kristy McNichol was like ‘all right’ about the evil succubus’ titties, I wanted to die. It was so clearly inserted to appeal to a horndog male viewer, when it was so obvious that Kristy wanted to fuck his brother. It was humiliating to behold. The movie was literally telling its male audience members, “Find these tits sexually exciting and ignore all the homoerotic and incestuous subtext of this movie.” Ridiculous.

Reggie as New Age cult leader.

Sean: The Jody/Kristy McNichol incest made me feel sexy when I was 7.

Kristine: Did you want your parents to die in a car accident and have a big bro in tight jeans to take care of you?

Sean: I wanted “Jody” to take me onto his lap, in his tight jeans, and give me a spanking.

Kristine: And then pass you over to Reggie?

Sean: Shut up. What about the dwarves attacking the girls in the car and then Kristy McNichol getting pushed out and the car rolling away with the screams still going on and on? So weird. This movie is Misogyny 101.

Kristine: The girls being ineffective and screaming and dumber than Kristy McNichol was misogynistic. But I just can’t care about this movie or anything that happens in it.

Sean: Ok, but I just want to point out the significance of Kristy McNichol being sent to the all-girl space and rejecting it. And then the girls being easily terrorized and abducted and Kristy McNichol falling out of the back of the car is like, the moment when he rejects heterosexuality and pledges to himself that he is going to get in Jody’s pants by daybreak.

Kristine: Is the Tall Man someone famous?

Sean: The Tall Man is a horror movie hall-of-famer, but he is not famous outside of going, “Booooooy” I just can’t believe you weren’t amused or entertained by all the weird interdimensional schlock in this movie.

What a little cocktease.

Kristine: It really left me cold.

Sean: They are turning corpses into a slave race in another dimension? That’s just so off-the-wall and just such science fiction weirdness.

Kristine: Why do the dwarves need to be locked in barrels to go into another dimension when it seems like they do the Tall Man’s bidding in this dimension? It’s not like they are trying to escape.

Sean: The barrels are just a mode of transport through the gateway, not a “prison” I don’t think.

Kristine: Also, how do they get turned into dwarves?

Sean: We don’t know, they just do.

Kristine: What slave work are they doing in the other dimension?

Sean: It is unclear and left up to the imagination.

Kristine: Why are they being stockpiled? Does The Tall Man get a break on intergalactic postage if he sends them in bulk? Why don’t they just get sent over once they are “made”?

Sean: You are being a nerdlinger for asking these things and not just going with it.

Kristine: If they are going to go there and nerd out on me then I can ask questions. The most ridic part of the movie is when Kristy McNichol “explains” the whole dwarf thing to Jody and Reggie and they are all “Yes. Of course. That’s it. Duh! Why didn’t we figure that out earlier?”

12 - jody ass
The ass that queered a thousand queerlings.

Sean: I remember Jody’s bare ass sending shivers of ecstasy up and down my 7-year-old body. I am really only interested in this movie for two reasons: 1) as an example of 1970s surrealism and 2) as a serious text of protoboy queerness.

Kristine: Ok, the all-male universe/household is somewhat interesting, and reminded me a bit of Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Sean: This movie is about being a little gay keptboy queerpet.

Kristine: The fact that Reggie, not a woman they know, is Kristy McNichol’s next surrogate parent is interesting.

Sean: How Kristy McNichol stalks and obsessively follows Jody everywhere. He wants Jody to delicately insert his 1970s folk rock boner into him.

Kristine: Did you have long girly eyelashes like Kristy when you were a queerling?

The horror of ejaculation.

Sean: The Queerling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Kristine: Ha!

Sean: I was a little ugly queerling. No pretty lashes. Just a jumbled, punchable face. Jody and Reggie as aging ‘70s rockers really, really entertained me. Especially because this movie was released in 1979. The 1980s were right around the corner, with yuppies and punks and New Wave about to make these two totally culturally obsolete. I love the idea of Jody and Reggie hearing a Devo record or a Duran Duran record and like, dying on the floor.

Kristine: I mean, the two of them as aspiring musicians was amusing, especially because the movie is hip to the fact they are going nowhere. There is a way in which this movie is an all-out assault on the young suburban males of the time period, laughing at their aspirational rock band dreams and mocking their yen for tits and pussy with tons of incestuous homoeroticism.

Sean: Jody’s car was hot.

Kristine: It’s a Barracuda. I called it a Mustang and my boyfriend was like, “Ummmm.”

Sean: “Barracuda” is phallic. Oh no, your bf watched this?

Kristine: Yes. He has lost all respect for us, I think. He fell asleep like 2/3 of the way through.

Sean: Is he making you hate things more than you would alone?

Kristine: No.

Sean: Is he?

Kristine: I hate plenty alone. Think about me and the things I have historically hated. Then think about this movie. Then decide.

Sean: I am imagining him all derisively sneering at the movie, infecting you with his cavalier attitude.

Kristine: He doesn’t sneer. This was him watching Phantasm: “That’s a Barracuda, not a Mustang, Kristine.”

Nightmare on the period blood planet.

Sean: Phallic.

Kristine: “Dwarves are dumb.”

Sean: He made you think dwarves are dumb.

Kristine: Dwarves are dumb. Only gnomes are awesome.

Sean: I am dying. Those dwarves scared the fucking hell out of me as a little kid.

Kristine: They were scary when they were unseen, I give you that.

Sean: Admit this movie is incredibly homosexual.

Kristine: I already said that, but yes I admit that.

Sean: When Kristy is following Jody, it’s because he wants to unzip his jeans and have lunch.

Kristine: Ha ha, stop it. No, he is afraid of being abandoned. That his favorite cock is leaving forever.

Sean: I am seriously surprised there wasn’t a “playful wrestling” scene.

Kristine: Right? What about all the gun play?

Sean: Gun play?

Oldey times Tall Man.

Kristine: Why were there so many guns in that house? Is that normal?

Sean: Guns = cocks, sweetie.

Kristine: I love how in this movie being a boy means working on cars and shooting guns.

Sean: And riding your hog around the cemetery like a badass.

Kristine: Oh god.

Sean: And falling off it a ton.

Kristine: That was hardly a hog.

Sean: I mean, the dead parents make this movie into a Freudian fever dream right?

Kristine: Right.

Sean: It’s all about the horror of the aesthetics of death: the yellow blood/embalming fluid, the coffins, the mausoleum, the violated and absent bodies. What could be more Freudian than the scene of Jody and Kristy McNichol confronting the empty, lifeless phallus of their father’s coffin?

Kristine: I can see all that, but it wasn’t handled right.

Sphere prongs based on cat-penis design.

Sean: The sphere ejaculating blood in a big geyser was sex.

Kristine: The reason I like the Tall Man was because I can buy that adults appear that way sometimes… towering and striding towards you at amazing speed when they are angry. I liked how the Tall Man reinforced that our point-of-view character was a 13-year-old boy and that this is what he would find scary.

Sean: Yeah, the Tall Man is just…. Every Angry Daddy. You know my dad used to call me “boy” when I was in trouble and about to get hit. Talk about the Muppet fly crawling in Kristy McNichol’s ginger locks.

Kristine: Just another example of this movie being a muddled mix of everything, and none of it working. You can have dwarves or you can have killer flying orb or you can have an evil Muppet fly… not all of it.

Sean: Oh I like throwing it all in the mix irreverently. The ladies owned an antique shop because that’s what ladies do.

Kristine: Fuck, I forgot about that. Dumb.

Sean: Would you sit on Jody’s face?

Kristine: Nah. He was all right, but I can’t with this movie to that extent.

Sean: Reggie?

Kristine: God no.

Sean: Reggie’s ponytail. He was like…. Elton John.

Kristine: This movie had to know they were making Reggie fit a known pedophile profile, right? Right down to being an ice cream man? Or in 1979 was that not yet a trope of kiddie-fucking?

Sean: I don’t know but I love it. So all the dream moments, like Kristy McNichol in his bed in the middle of the graveyard and Jody getting pulled through the tiny window by the dwarves and the car with the screaming girls in it just slowly rolling away, I just want you to file that imagery away as a reference for later movies.

Kristine: Okay. Done. I’m just glad this is over.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating:  This is a horror classic because…why, exactly?

The Freak’s Rating: Batshit insanity AND I remembered this as being good but…

Don't you know this is EXACTLY what a migraine feels like...
Don’t you know this is EXACTLY what a migraine feels like…

12 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979)

  1. I love Phantasm, but this is hilarious and you are basically right about everything. Do you know that this movie was financed by the writer/director’s dad and that his mum wrote the novelisation?

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