Phantasm (1979)

phantasmI’m still browsing through a vast body of unwatched cult classics (there are so many of them) and time has come to finally open the case that contains Phantasm, a cult movie from 1979. Basically one-man-production of Don Coscarelli and him team of mostly unknown actors (or as wiki puts it: aspiring ones) which has spawned four sequels (with fifth being announced), box office success, and small cult following – like many of the horrors of the seventies (which was a good decade both for horror and general American filmmaking). Being a fan of this era I was actually thrilled with prospect of seeing something that was created back then and which had some influence on later productions within the genre. The fact that it was one of those movies that somehow got past me was seriously adding to my excitement. Some time later, the show was over and I was left with a puzzled look. I could almost hear metaphorical clockwork engine making his circles within my head trying to compute any sort of an answer to the questions that have arisen. Most prominent of those was: “What the fuck did I just watch?”

vlcsnap-2014-07-02-23h47m59s224Problem with “cult classics” is that you need to accept them on their own terms. They usually possess some kind of unique language (discourse) that requires some getting used to. One has to make an effort in deciphering either imagery or language or feeling or any of the myriad of possibilities that lie hidden inside the final product, however undignified or amateurish it might look like (compared to “official production” of the mainstream). Cult classics usually reward this “effort”. It takes some practice, it takes some will to attune yourself to the particular problems of era-style-context-meaning, but longer one does this easier it becomes. Sometimes though, things just don’t make any sense. Considering Phantasm I’m still trying to figure what was that one thing that inspired cult following. As TV Tropes argue, much of the series relies on “rule of the cool” trope. While this may be true for the entire series it is hardly viable for the first installment (except for the flying brain drilling sphere which and the accompanying death scene which were both really cool in a sort of campy way reminiscent of Monty Python’s Scott of the Sahara sketch) which is hardly anything more than loosely composed series of dream-like sequences largely nonchalant towards linear narrative. While this makes sense in the context of everything being a dream (well, sort of a dream), it is primarily confusing. To come to this revelation, one must “suffer” all to the end and it’s not as easy a task as you might think.

vlcsnap-2014-07-02-23h47m50s164More than these structural tidbits, Phantasm lacks – well – sense… point… or anything that would be broader than the central theme of an alien creature creating a slave race of dwarf-zombies (this did have some surreal quality, especially in the otherworldly scenes saturated with ominous colors and accompanying atmosphere). There seems to be a consensus amongst the critics that Phantasm actually explores themes of death, mainly children’s fear of death. If this is so than that’s a pretty straightforward interpretation which, I might add, film doesn’t really communicate well. It is one thing to be influenced by non-explanatory movies of Italian giallo, and the other thing to offer half-assed explanation of everything being a dream/fear. It stinks too much of lazy writing and to pull that kind of lazy writing off one really has to be an expert craftsman skilled in creating imagery that haunts you one some primordial level, distracting you from noticing what is actually going on. In 1979 Coscarelli wasn’t on that level. Phantasm has too many blind spots, it has too many “pauses” which give you time to reflect upon the plot (or the absence of), time to notice sutures and lack of connective threads. Phantasm is a tapestry that has some eye-catching patterns but is mainly ravaged by moths making it something like that wedding present form your grandmother which you never bothered to pull out of the closet. True, it was made with love but it was made by a grandmother with a penchant for acid. You can’t really show it to your cool friends without having to make some kind of excuse for it and, as the years go by, that becomes more and more tedious. So you forget about it and the world keeps turning.

Directed by Don Coscarelli
Produced by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli
Starring Michael Baldwin
Bill Thornbury
Reggie Bannister
Kathy Lester
Angus Scrimm
Music by Fred Myrow
Malcolm Seagrave
Cinematography Don Coscarelli
Edited by Don Coscarelli
New Breed Productions

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