Friday, October 11, 2013

Film Friday: Phantasm (1979)

I love Phantasm. Phantasm is one of those films that somehow does it all right. Relatable characters. The mood is tense. The villain is scary. The plot is strong and original. The sets and effects are believable enough that you can suspend your disbelief without trouble. Indeed, the low budget lends a reality to this film which slicker productions typically lack.
Our story opens with a funeral. Mike Pearson’s parents have died. Thirteen-year-old Mike has been barred from the funeral by his older brother Jody, an aspiring musician. But Mike sneaks to the cemetery anyway to watch the proceedings. What he sees is shocking. Not only does he think that he sees dwarf-like creatures scurrying just out of sight behind headstones, but he witnesses the mortician, a tall man in a black suit, lift a coffin all by himself!
Mike races home and tells Jody what he saw. Jody doesn’t believe him. Jody is twenty-four and he doesn’t want to be tied down by a thirteen-year-old kid. He wants to be out on the road trying to build his career as a musician, and he thinks Mike is making this up because he senses that Jody is planning to leave him with relatives, and he wants to trick Jody into staying. With Jody refusing to believe him, Mike goes to a fortune teller and her granddaughter for advice. She warns Mike that fear itself is the killer. But is that really true?

Apparently not, because Mike soon finds himself attacked by the Tall Man’s minions. These are dwarves, dressed like Jawas from Star Wars. Then the Tall Man himself attacks. He has several unusual powers, and when Mike cuts off his fingers, they subsequently come to life. This is enough to convince Jody that something evil is going on. Jody, Mike and their friend Reggie, a milkman who also plays guitar, check out the mortuary. Once there, they discover a portal to another world. They also learn that the dwarves are the dead who have been entrusted to the mortuary, e.g. their parents. These dead are sent through the portal to another world, where they are crushed down and made to work as slaves.
Can they escape the Tall Man? Can they stop him?
Why This Film Works
This is another one the critics hated, but which has become a cult favorite. (Ignore the sequels.) The critics essentially said the film shows flashes of brilliance and the director had raw talent, but the film was a mess. But the film isn’t really a mess at all, it just doesn’t spell everything out. And as we’ve learned, a lot of these people who claim to be experts on film are incapable of understanding films that don’t spoon-feed them all points.

Phantasm is a solid film with moments of genius. The story is highly original, but it doesn’t spoon-feed you. Yet, it’s easy to follow and understand if you use your brain. For example, they never tell you what the Tall Man really is, i.e. they never explain his true nature. But his threat is obvious. It’s also obvious that he’s not human. But again, you have to pick this up from his behavior, because they don’t tell you “Hey, he’s not human!” What they do instead is show him doing things humans cannot do, like lifting a casket on his own or re-growing fingers. As for his nature, they give you clues to that too. For example, he can appear to be something he is not, like when he appears to be a scantily-clad woman to lure a man to the graveyard and when he appears in dreams. There is also a truly brilliant scene where you see him stop to smell what appears to be steam rising from dry ice.
This is a brilliant scene. Reggie is taking ice out of his truck and you see the Tall Man, who has an unnatural stride, walk along the street intending to pass Reggie. Mike is watching the Tall Man from a distance. The Tall Man suddenly stops right next to Reggie. He turns to face Reggie and he seems to breath in the smoke/steam coming from Reggie’s truck. This is intensely creepy for two reasons. First, it’s creepy because this isn’t human behavior. Yes, humans do this, as they may stop to smell at a bakery, but no human would stop to smell dry-ice steam. This suggests alien origin. Indeed, it feels like he has stopped because what he smells reminds him of his home world.

The second reason this is creepy is that we don’t actually know what he thinks he’s smelling. It is equally possible that he can smell death or the soul or something along those lines and he smells it on Reggie. In effect, he has stopped to savor the smell of a victim he wants. You don’t know which is it or what he smells, but you know it’s bad news and you know this isn’t human. He then looks directly into the camera and thereby pulls you in... is it you he is really after? Or is he warning you that there is nothing you can do to help Reggie?

None of these things are explained, but that’s not a problem unless you need everything explained to you. To the contrary, by not explaining these things, you have a brilliantly creepy scene that is open to many interpretations depending on what would be most creepy to you. It’s actually an inspired bit of filmmaking.
The film’s themes are the same way. The minor themes are obvious, though relatable: Mike is dealing with the fear of being left alone now that his parents are dead and Jody is dealing with the tug between the responsibility he feels for his younger brother and wanting to be free to live his life. These are real world themes that each of us can appreciate and which bring us to the right state of mind for what comes next, which is the main theme (as an aside, this is also more and more complex “character development” than you usually get these days).

The main theme involves the struggle against the Tall Man. The Tall Man represents the fear of the unknown that accompanies death. Most people think of death as involving either a blinking out of existence or some presumably happy afterlife. But we all have a fear in the back of our minds that maybe... just maybe... there is something worse waiting for us. That is what Phantasm delves into: Mike learns that death is a nightmare of enslavement to an evil, cruel master on a hellish alien world. But again, this is not something the characters stop to explain through exposition. Once again, you need to pick this up from seeing the dwarves, from their speculation about what the dwarves are, from their brief five word acknowledgement (“What about mom and dad?!”) that their dead friends and family could be among the dwarves, from the nature of the portal and from the brief glimpse through the portal. Presumably, that’s too much for the reviewers to grasp, but it really is laid out quite simply if you pay attention to the film.

And what do we get in exchange for this ambiguity? Well, you get a movie that lets an active mind run wild. You get a mystery buried within a film where you weren’t expecting one. You get clues that you need to assemble and base around educated guesses as to what is going on, who the Tall Man is, what he wants, and what each part means. That allows you to imagine so much more than the movie is able to provide in its run time; indeed, you can imagine whole worlds of backstory... as people have done on the net. And that gives you is a very rich film. That’s a decent tradeoff.
There’s one more thing to mention: the budget. One of the things I love about this film is that it feels more real and has stronger imagery than most big budget films. In fact, this film puts the lie to the idea of the tent-pole film. Consider the portal to the other world. This is a tuning fork made of two silver tubes placed in a bright white room with a loud hum in the soundtrack. This makes for a stunning visual and is better than all the “gateway” CGI I’ve seen. Indeed, think of all the lights and CGI-whatnots needed to move John Carter to Mars and then compare it to the simplicity here. Tens of millions of dollars of CGI effort couldn’t hold a candle to a smart director who used $10 worth of tubing and $50 worth of paint to make a truly memorable image.

Or consider the ice-sniffing scene discussed above. Most films would use CGI to show the creature transforming from human into its natural form. But in so doing, they would inject a cartoony monster into the story which will lose half the audience. Not here. Here the director had the actor stop and sniff the air in a very non-human and creepy way. Thus, $0 resulted in an iconic moment that directors with access to tons of cash never would think to do.

Indeed, part of what makes this film so inventive, I suspect, is the need to work around the low budget. The budget was $300,000, borrowed from friends and family. The director’s mother made some of the special effects. The cast and crew were friends. It was filmed over weekends over the course of one year. The car was borrowed. And the director, Coscarelli, handled all the technical aspects because he couldn’t afford to hire a cameraman or an editor.

Nevertheless, in finding ways to tell this story without CGI, without special effects, and without a huge budget, the director created a series of iconic horror images that all horror fans know today; he also netted around $12 million at the box office. Clearly, a smart director not only can get by without money, but can thrive in that environment. This film is the posterboy for the fact that money means nothing when it comes to making quality films. What matters is the quality of the story and the creativity of the presentation. And the more crutches directors rely upon, the more their films cost... but they aren’t getting any better.


Tennessee Jed said...

I've never seen this one. Actually, to be honest, I've never even heard of it. Probably won't get to see it anytime soon, but I appreciate the concept of low budget films that are more real than the slick big budget bore-a-thons.

Individualist said...

"You don’t know which is it or what he smells, but you know it’s bad news and you know this isn’t human."

No not human behavior - maybe he's from Congress!

I loved Phantasm - the silver ball that chases you around was scary

tryanmax said...

I haven't seen Phantasm but your description of the Tall Man reminds me of the aliens in Dark City. They're just a bunch of pale bald men in long coats and hats, but they're creepy as hell. Unfortunately, the CGI reveal of a hydra-like alien undermined the whole thing.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, If you're not into horror, then you might no know this one, but for horror fans it is iconic. It's most famous for a silver ball that flights through the air with a spike in the front which tries to attack you.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I loved this movie too. It's a surprisingly effective horror movie, especially given all the budgetary constraints.

As for Congress, can't be from Congress because he's too capable. :P

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Very similar. This guy is a couple feet taller than everyone else (I think they put him in a suit that was too small to make him seem even taller), he had an emotionless face that's full of menace but rarely changes, he has an unnatural stride, and he has a harsh voice which he rarely uses. The end result is a character that is super creepy just on sight alone.

If they had done some sort of special effects reveal of what he really was, then the whole effect would have been ruined and people would have laughed. Instead, you were left with this super creepy feel throughout as your mind filled in the blanks.

There is a lot to be said for not saying too much.

T-Rav said...

Kind of reminds me of the whole "Art From Adversity" mantra used by RLM in comparing the Star Wars original trilogy to the prequels. Original trilogy had low budget (at least at first), production problems, etc., and it turned out great. Prequels had oodles of money for CGI, and look what happened. Same thing here, it seems.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, It reminds me of that too. There is definitely something to smaller budgets causing creative directors to use their minds more. I can't say that as a strategy that having no money to make a film would be the ideal way to do it, but it would probably make sense to give the director a lot less than they want.

Anonymous said...

^In the Star Trek II commentary, Nicolas Meyer repeatedly states that "Art thrives on restrictions."

As for this film, I've heard of it but I never saw it. Not a horror guy (said the guy who just reviewed Alien 3!). :-D

Maybe one day!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think that's largely true. Obviously, too many restrictions is a killer, but certainly some are useful as a way to focus creativity.

Most of our audience isn't into horror, but it is October and I am... so... :D

Rustbelt said...

Okay, I have to chime in on this discussion. I would like to say that I consider the whole small budget automatically= good creativity to be false logic. While it's true that innovation can thrive in the hands of the right director who's working on a budget, it can also forget to show up. And if MST3K has taught us anything, it's that low budget and indie films can easily suffer from stupidity, director overindulgence, and a total lack of vision just as budget flops do.

Remember that films like "The Godfather," "The Sting," "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," "The Dark Knight," etc. all had big budgets, A-list actors, and big names on the production staff and turned out fine. No, make that GREAT. And for every "Phantasm," "Mad Max," "Halloween," etc. that succeeds- and ends up having film fans everywhere praising the fact that it rose above above low budget problems on pure innovation- remember that there are a bajillion similar films done in by the same problems that plague the big budget disasters, namely uninspired ideas, bad acting, bad production decisions, and directors who couldn't direct traffic if shown the manual. (I present known offenders such as "Birdemic: Shock and Terror," "The Blood Waters of Dr. Z," "Space Mutiny," anything by Ed Wood, "The Wraith," and the well-known "Manos: the Hands of Fate" as supporting evidence.)

Scott, not to be overly cynical, but I doubt Meyer would've said that if he'd had the same budget the first Star Trek movie had.

As for 'Phantasm,' well, I can't comment because I haven't seen it. I mean, I've heard of it and the Tall Man before (and I'll admit to really being spooked by some random scenes I've caught here and there). It definitely sounds like a thinking man's type of horror flick. (And given its nature, I'd be shocked if the Lovecraft crowd hasn't tried to claim this film as one of their own- just like they've done with 'Ghostbusters.')

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I don't think any of us are saying "automatic," nor would I ever argue that most low-budget films are even passably good. The quality of a film depends on the writing, the director and having enough budget to achieve at least the bare minimum needed to achieve an adequate vision.

That said, I think the point is a valid one that restrictions and limits tend to breed increased creativity.

In some cases, like with Nolan, having a bigger budget than Africa is a good thing because he uses the money to support his ideas. But in most cases, it just leads to lazy directors who turn off their minds and just throw money at the problem. If those directors couldn't just throw money at the problem, they would be forced to use their creativity instead, and that tends to lead to better results.

But again, a bad director at any level is doomed no matter what budget he has.

Anonymous said...

This is a movie that has grown on me over the decades-- put it this way: I rented the VHS back in the day.

One of my favorite sequences in recent memory is Reggie and Jodie strumming their guitars on the front porch. It does not advance the plot much, but it advances the characters tremendously. Other reviews criticize the scene for not advancing the plot, but the beat with tuning fork at the end of the scene foreshadows Reggie understanding the gateway at the end of the movie.

As far as the sequels, the second one is dude porn, between muscle cars and weaponry.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, That's one of my favorite moments too. It does foreshadow, and it also perfectly lays out the depth of the relationship between the main characters. It's also a perfect contrast to the rest of the film and helps make them feel more real than they would if the film was all just plot.

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