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Raised in Fear: PHANTASM and the Uses of Enchantment

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by Jed Mayer
September 6, 2012 8:45 AM
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Dracula

For many filmgoers, seeing their first horror movie is a rite of passage: mine came at the tender age of six, on our first family visit to the drive-in to see The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). Though I imagine I must have been scared, what I remember most from the experience was getting out of the car when we returned home, and looking up at the moon, which now held a newly ominous sense of enchantment. Contrary to the prohibitive logic of our ratings classification system, horror films, like fairy tales and märchen in an earlier era, can and do provide young minds with a visual vocabulary for structuring imaginative experience.

Don Coscarelli’s low-budget auteur classic Phantasm (1979) explores the dynamic relationship between fact and fantasy in its dream-like variation on the coming-of-age narrative. As the somewhat equivocal conclusion of the film suggests, the entire story would seem to be the extended dream, or “phantasm,” of its thirteen-year-old protagonist, Michael (A. Michael Baldwin). The film’s bold melding of science fiction, fantasy, and horror narratives is a testament to the vibrant spirit of unfettered independent film-making, but it is also a vivid portrayal of the ways in which our teenage minds were structured by a rich and eclectic variety of media and stories.

Phantasm still 1

When Michael visits a blind old fortune-teller and her starry-eyed granddaughter for advice on how to cope with the increasing absence of his beloved older brother, Jody, for example, the old crone subjects him to a fear-test copped directly from Frank Herbert’s Dune. This is the first of several hints that the gothic horror mode in which the film begins will point towards other genres.  The intermingling of horror and science fiction (not to mention 1970s interior decorating) is nicely encapsulated in the set of Michael’s bedroom, where we see him covered in an orange and brown afghan, slumbering beneath a wall-size poster of NASA’s famous “Earthrise” image. The camera cuts to another image of Michael’s bed, now in a graveyard, as the earth around him suddenly erupts and he is covered by a host of corpses who seem to draw him beneath the earth. These are the things alienated kids obsess over, and hence it makes sense that these would shape the dream life of the main character. 

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But the interweaving of narrative conventions in the film is not merely playful: as the film slowly unveils its science fiction underpinnings, it begins to explore fears and anxieties that haunt the borders between genres and the ways those genres reflect our imaginative perception of the world. In one of the most sensitive readings of the film, John Kenneth Muir describes the nuanced ways in which the film uses horror conventions to structure the story of a teenage boy’s coming to terms with death and loss. Most intriguingly, Muir addresses the film’s concern, not merely with the passing of loved ones, but also with the “death industry” which profits from such loss. This industry is hauntingly embodied by the glowing white edifice of Morningside Funeral Parlor, first shown in a striking wide-angle shot where it stands ominously in the background, framed between Jody (Bill Thornbury) and his band-mate Reggie (Reggie Bannister), as they discuss the recent loss of their friend and third band member, Tommy (Bill Cone). From that point forward, Morningside will cast a long shadow over the lives of the characters, repelling and alluring them in equal measure. 

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While loss and mourning are certainly keynotes of this often surprisingly poignant film, the science fiction story which lies at the heart of the mystery that is Morningside Funeral Parlor will direct our attention, and our fears, towards what is perhaps an even more traumatic part of growing up: getting a job. Imagined through the dreaming mind of our protagonist, this fate takes the form of an outlandish conspiracy theory: the Funeral Director, referred to only as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), turns out to be an emissary from another world, sent to retrieve reanimated corpses who will serve as slave labor on a distant planetary wasteland. 

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What cannot help sounding ridiculous when summarized in a few words takes on a horrifying vividness in the film, largely through the working details of this zombie slave industry. Michael, Jody, and Reggie eventually meet in a glowing white room filled with three-foot canisters complete with ventilation holes revealing the dwarf workers trapped within. These transport cases uniformly line the walls in a grotesque image of efficiency.  In the center of the room stands a two-pronged gateway into the destination world, which Michael briefly passes through, to hover over an eerie red desert on which a long line of forced laborers march towards a distant horizon. After being rescued from the portal, Michael describes his vision to his brother and friend, and works through the infernal logic of what’s been going on up at Morningside: “Slaves.  They're usin' 'em for slaves. The dwarfs. And they got to crush 'em 'cause of the gravity. And the heat. And this is the door to their planet.” Where once the protagonists feared death at the hands of the ominous Tall Man, they are now faced with an even more horrifying life-in-death that resembles a grotesque dream version of that forced labor politely termed a “career,” looming just over the dwindling horizon of youth.

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In contrast to this envisioned slavery is the characters’ earlier life, which seems to consist largely of tradin’ tasty guitar licks on the front porch, tinkering with Jody’s muscle car, drinking Dos Equis, slinging ice cream, getting laid in the graveyard, spying on an older brother getting laid in the graveyard, and pursuing paranormal mysteries on a mini-bike. The film, like many low-budget horror films of the period, seems to take place in a land where it is always late summer, the streets are strangely deserted, and the parents strangely absent. The disturbing mystery that eventually engrosses our youthful heroes emerges through Michael’s binoculars as he witnesses the Tall Man lifting a casket with his bare hands and loading it into the back of his hearse. In one of the film’s delightfully dumb but idiomatically pitch-perfect conversations, Jody responds: “You’re crazy. I helped carry that sucker myself. It must have weighed over five hundred pounds. Well, I can’t figure this thing out. But I do know one thing: something weird is going on up there.” Later, when Reggie boastfully proposes a plan to “lay that sucker out flat and drive a stake right through his goddamn heart,” Michael replies in the film’s rich period vernacular, “You gotta be shittin’ me man: that mother’s strong.” And indeed he is.

As Michael, Jody and Reggie begin to pursue “that Tall Dude” in earnest, the story assumes a Boy’s Own Story-like charm, while deftly retaining the sense of uncanny menace established so effectively in the film’s opening scenes. Accompanied by a marvelously supple score in which the haunting theme song shifts through ominous, groovy, and somber variations, the unlikely story pursues its digressive path towards an equivocal conclusion that leaves the reader to determine the relative truth-value of the story’s many layers. Ambiguity and circularity of plot come to serve as this wildly inventive film’s most effective means of warding off the deadening sense of closure looming over the horizon. Perhaps Phantasm has become such an enduring cult film, at least in part, because its outlandish narrative strategies offer such a compelling way of re-scripting our own life stories.

Jed Mayer is an Assistant Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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