“You play a good game boy, but the game is finished.”
Two deaths in my extended family when I was young affected me greatly in different ways. My grandfather’s death seemed random and pointless and made me question the world and God and family and pretty much everything. My cousin’s murder reinforced those things and I often daydreamed about having the ability go back in time and change things or finding the people responsible and making them pay for what they did. They both made me intimately familiar with the ins and outs of grief.
I think Phantasm is a movie about grief.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s also a movie about a Tall Man stalking people through marble corridors, murderous dwarfs and killer flying metal balls. I’m just saying on another level it’s about a kid trying to come to grips with the deaths of his entire family. I think that might be one of the reasons I liked the movie so much when I first saw it. At some point over the intervening years Phantasm II became my favorite, but I still have a soft spot for the first one – as surreal and random as it is.
J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions got involved in a restoration of Phantasm sometime in 2015 and completed it in 2016. Phantasm: Remastered even got a limited theatrical release before hitting DVD and Blu-ray. It’s now available for streaming on Shudder as are parts 3, 4 and Ravager – but not, infuriatingly, Part 2. I’ve somehow still not picked up the Blu-ray.
For many years this was a movie I only ever saw on VHS, and it’s still amazing to see it all cleaned up and in high def. It’s still a low budget 70’s exploitation film, but it’s well worth the upgrade.
Phantasm is hard to describe without giving much away. No, that’s not fair – it’s just hard to describe. Let’s try this – after a strange death (involving the second most ludicrous use of boobs in a horror movie), a young man named Mike, his brother Jody and their friend Reggie become embroiled in a game of cat and mouse with the local mortician, a strange individual dubbed “The Tall Man.”
There, that seem straightforward enough, right? Makes absolutely no mention of super strength, strange dwarfs, guitar jams, psychics, grave robbing, animated fingers that turn into insects, other planets or abandoned mine shafts. All of those things and more will make an appearance over the course of the film, which is weird and disconnected and dreamlike from the get-go.
Mike is suffering from fears of abandonment after the death of his parents. After spying on his brother during the funeral – where he witnesses the Tall Man lift a coffin all by himself – he visits a psychic because he’s afraid his brother is going to take off on him. The psychic responds by going all ‘Bene Gesserit’ on him. She makes him put his hand in a black box, his hand starts to hurt, he tries to pull it out all while the psychic’s daughter says in flat monotone “don’t fear, Michael, don’t fear.” To his credit, at no time does Mike say “this damn box is eating my hand and if you say ‘don’t fear’ one more time I’m hitting you with it!” The point – other than to get cred with Dune fans – is that fear is Mike’s problem, and that only in overcoming his fear can he triumph.
Mike investigates the funeral home and is discovered and chased by the Tall Man and a flying silver sphere that uses blades to lodge into your face before drilling into your skull. Also by dwarfs that look so much like jawas that I expected them to yell ‘utini!’ every time they appeared. He manages to escape, taking with him a with a severed finger – the result of the Tall Man getting his hand caught in a door (and with a little help from Mike’s knife). Mike uses the Tall Man’s finger – still sitting in a goopy bed of the yellow fluid that passes for the Tall Man’s blood – to convince Jody that something weird is definitely going on.
Oh, also, the finger turns into a crazy, sharp-toothed insect that is then ground up in a garbage disposal. So there’s that.
So, weird and surreal or cheap and half-assed, depending on your point of view. I actually like how random and disconnected things are, but they could be read as the filmmakers not having a clue as to what they’re doing. If you haven’t bought in by the time the bug shows up, then you’re probably better off not finishing the film because it just gets weirder. Which is something I actually said to my wife the one time I got her to watch it – “this just gets weirder.” She didn’t believe me.
Mike, Jody and Reggie enter the mausoleum to… actually, I’m not sure why. To confront the Tall Man? Find evidence of his crimes (the dwarfs are actually dead townsfolk – including their friend from the opening scene – that have been crushed to a smaller size)? I’m not sure, and it’s probably not important. There are more dwarfs, the Tall Man, the sphere and finally a room full of black, plastic barrels that contain a bunch of the dwarfs. And two silver pillars in the middle of the floor. Mike falls partly between the pillars and finds himself halfway into another world, with the dwarfs being used as slaves under a red sun.
At this point my wife turned to me and said, “okay, you were right, it got weirder.”
The two brothers escape, but Reggie is stabbed by the Tall Man in his guise as a beautiful woman. Jody and Mike hatch a plan to trap the Tall Man in an abandoned mine and Jody heads off to set the trap, leaving Mike to wait for the all clear. Unfortunately for Mike, the Tall Man knows where he lives and attacks – causing Mike to have to escape and head to the mine on foot.
This all sounds way more straightforward than it is. There’s sense of dreamlike unreality that permeates the whole film. The finale is no different. As Mike flees the Tall Man the very ground beneath his feet seems determined to hinder him, turning to mud and sucking at his feet. He chants “don’t fear, don’t fear” and this somehow allows him to escape the mud and keep running toward the mine. There’s a final confrontation with the Tall Man at the mine and a triumphant moment with the two brothers.
So that should be the ending, but isn’t. What follows should feel like a cheat, but somehow doesn’t. In fact, it makes what went before a bit easier to understand – and for me, touches on that element of grief, of being unable to let go of the people we’ve lost. And then the movie pulls the rug out from under you with one more twist.
The Bottom Line
Phantasm is a weird film and it’s just not going to be for everyone. My wife spent a fair portion of the film asking “what the hell is going on?” It’s surreal and low-budget and extremely 70’s, but those are all part of the charm. Come for the Tall Man, killer metal balls and surreal touches, stay for the deeper themes.