Saturday, October 6, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 5: Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)

31 days of Halloween day 5: Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)
Phantasm is one of the first horror movies I can remember being aware of, mostly likely from the ads announcing its first television airing, back when it was a big deal for theatrical films to be shown on TV, and you might catch a horror film like Phantasm, Friday the 13th or Happy Birthday to Me on primetime television on one of the local UHF stations.  Though it would be around a decade before I actually saw the film, its imagery was already imprinted on my brain- the eerie marble hallways of the mausoleum, the flying bladed sphere and of course Angus Scrimm as the terrifying Tall Man.
Phantasm is also a horror film that many people seem to have a deep, personal connection with.  As a teenager, a friend told me it was one of the movies that helped him through his parents’ divorce, and at the screening of the film’s 4k restoration I attended the other night, director Don Coscarelli (a mensch) told us that he’d heard from many people who’d lost a sibling or parent for whom the film really resonated.
Watching the film, not for the first time, but for the first time on the big screen, and looking better than it probably has since its first run, I was struck by several things.  It makes sense to me that the film strikes an emotional chord for many viewers.  It’s not just that it deals with mourning and loss, but also that it has a kind of emotional reality that is fairly rare in horror movies.
Most horror films tend to take place in a state of heightened reality, and much of what we see from the characters is in response to the situation at hand.  They tend to be sketched broadly and without much nuance.  This is even the case in many of the best horror films- Night of the Living Dead and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre don’t really suffer from the limited scope of their characterizations, but they also aren’t movies that resonate in the same way that Phantasm (or Halloween or Carrie, two other films of the era that have a kind of emotional reality to them) does.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where this comes from.  There’s not a ton of exposition in Phantasm, nor is it an especially talky movie.  There’s something in the essence of it, though, in the atmosphere and performances, that comes through and registers as real.  Both the friend I saw it with this time and I, independently of one another, noticed during the screening that there is something very literary about Phantasm, and again, it’s not really in the dialogue, but during the viewing, I found myself responding to the movie almost as though I were reading it in a pulp horror novel.  It’s in the sense of character and the sense of place.
One other thing I noticed during this screening was how unlike any other movie Phantasm is.  Even the most surprising, exciting and otherwise original horror films tend to be grounded in some aspect of the horror tradition, or make allusions to other horror movies.  If Phantasm has an influence, it seems to be more literary science-fiction than anything in horror, it’s simply a wholly original concept, visualized and constructed in a unique and visionary way.
I mentioned before that I know of many people who have an intense emotional connection to Phantasm, and I have to admit that up until last night’s screening, I did not.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love the movie, or that it didn’t move me, I just didn’t connect to it on a personal level (my parents never divorced, I had no siblings to lose and none of my close relatives died until I was much older).  Last night, though, it struck home- so much of everything the past couple of years, both personal and political, feel permeated with that sense of loss and longing and sadness and abandonment- and I feel like I may want to revisit again sooner rather than later, and perhaps more often than once every few years.  

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