Hey, it starts with tits! I'm there!
This was my second viewing of Phantasm, so I expected it to be a letdown. It's one of those rubber-reality nightmare non-logic movies in which anything might happen, so surely much of its tension stemmed from not knowing what the hell was coming next. Or so I thought. Happily I was wrong.
Let's start by looking at the dream logic (in a movie that's only got a couple of extremely short dream sequences). This is actually a tougher trick than you'd think. Lots of supposedly dream-based stories just sprinkle in some surrealism and let it go at that. However here the weirdness level is pitched just right - not so extreme that you lose interest, but powerful enough to create a sense of dislocation. When Michael Baldwin's driving his motorbike away from the Tall Man, he's not menaced by any routine threat to life and limb but instead by the motorbike deciding to turn upside-down. What happens to the Tall Man's severed finger should have been so goofy as to be laughable, but instead it fits right into the feel of the film.
In fact, one thing this film does is to make daft stuff menacing - and I'm not just talking about the usual "okay in a camp sort of way" but genuinely creep-you-out nasty. We have evil Jawas! And they're *scary*! In 99% of films, I'd have been laughing at the screen whenever these guys waddled on. Here they're vicious little motherfuckers.
And there's more. The film doesn't just give us weird shit, but concrete things to be rightly afraid of. The Morningside mausoleum is given lots of loving screen time, both inside and out. It's one of the film's most powerful presences and a far spookier haunted house than any you'll find in most haunted house movies. I also adore its interior set, which might be my favourite set in any horror film.
Let's not forget the balls, either. I'd heard so much about the balls that I was surprised on first viewing to find that they're actually pretty low-profile in this first movie. They kill one person and barely get thirty seconds' screen time - but boy, do they stamp themselves on your memory. In a mostly gore-free film, that drilling killing is a shocker.
And *then*, on top of all that, Don Coscarelli shows a knack for characterisation. Mike and Jody are instantly convincing as brothers and I'm full of admiration for the guitar-playing sequence between Jody and Reggie. I've seen people bash Michael Baldwin's performance, but I actually thought he did a great job playing his namesake. For bad teen acting, take a look at the fortune-teller's granddaughter. Thankfully she's not in it much.
I could go on and on about the stylistic tricks on display here. For a horror movie, it's fantastically fast-paced. Not infrequently, a scene is chopped off before the end and its dialogue played over the beginning of the next one in a technique more commonly seen on the recaps at the beginning of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. People sometimes scoot across a static picture, appearing and disappearing in a couple of seconds, in a manner one hardly sees outside silent comedies. At one point it gets a laugh here too.
I also adored the soundtrack (which is fabulous), despite the fact that I never notice incidental music. I especially liked the child's music box theme.
As an aside, young Mike Baldwin is quite an interesting character. He's a foul-mouthed, drinking, driving, car-fixing, gun-toting thirteen-year-old who seems to think it's his duty to look after his older brother (rather than the other way around). His habit of following him around town is creepy and when it comes to spying on his sexual conquests in the graveyard... well, let's just say that none of us would want a little brother like that. But if you think about it, Mike probably saved Jody's life in that sequence.
The oddest bit is that "don't feel the fear" nonsense from the fortune-teller. What with flesh-eating Jawas, gates to an alien world and a teleporting mortuary, I felt as if I was watching a Star Wars sequel from the evil anti-matter universe of Qqard. I've heard that later Phantasms got even more Lucas-y. If that's the case, I might just decide that the Tall Man comes from long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. That notion could be a lot of fun, especially when watching the Star Wars movies. :-)
My only niggle is why Mike didn't shoot the Tall Man while trapped in the back of the hearse. Even dream logic couldn't skate over that one for me. But maybe Mike knew that shooting the driver would be suicide and chose to make his escape first? Or perhaps he *did* shoot the Tall Man offscreen, which would explain why the hearse so conveniently hits a tree and explodes? (And yes, I'm aware that Mike blew out a tyre.)
This movie is a minor masterpiece. It's crammed with terrific scarecrows - the Tall Man, his flying spheres, the evil Jawas and the Morningside mausoleum itself. The latter is such a huge element that I felt the film lost some edge after the mausoleum went offworld. It's remarkably selective in its gore, keeping the ultra-violence focused while far more of the disappearances or deaths are ambiguous and/or left to your furiously working imagination. Even on a second viewing, it's still a nerve-jangler.
And on top of all that are some dream-images that you'll remember for a long time. Remember the scene where Mike and the Tall Man walk along a corridor towards each other with mirror movements? I recently bashed Jean Rollin's Requiem for a Vampire, which is crammed with outrageous imagery but exhibits a rather sad lack of imagination. Phantasm has imagination to spare.