Saturday 19 March 2011

Phantasm (1979)

There are all sorts of horror films: those that make you jump, those that disturb you, those that gross you out and those like PHANTASM which are just fun, like a ghost train.  They're not especially frightening, they might look a bit shonky but you can't help enjoying them.

PHANTASM was directed (and written and edited and shot) by a 25 year old guy called Don Coscarelli and it was clearly a labour of love not just for him but his family too - his dad produced it and his mum did the production design, make-up and costumes.  I understand it was shot on rented equipment over the course of two years, during which the cast and crew became very close friends.  That cameraderie is delightfully plain in front of the camera: the realtionship between the two brothers and their buddy is warm, funny and believable.  Consequently you really care about them and desperately hope that nothing nasty happens to them.  I would compare it to the friendship between Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) in the great TREMORS (1990).

Three amigos: Jody (L), Reggie and Michael
It must be incredibly difficult to build up that rapport between the characters and the audience because so few films manage it.  Most horror films are guilty of setting up a bunch of one-dimensional nothings simply in order to mow them down.  If you think of the horror films - and not just horror, any film - that has had a big impact on you it's probably because the characters were well drawn.  You don't necessarily have to like the characters but you have to believe in them and empathise with them.  After all, you've got to want to spend 90 minutes in their company.

Once Coscarelli has established that relationship then all sorts of benefits accrue.  I've already mentioned that dangerous situations seem more frightening, but the comedy also seems more natural - wisecracks between brothers and friends.  It's hard to resist a film in which a man stuffing a dead alien dwarf into his ice-cream van asks "This guy's not gonna leak all over my ice-cream is he?"

There's attention to detail too, which must have been a real challenge in such a piecemeal production.  For instance, early on it is established that 13 year-old Mike is a decent mechanic.  It seems an incidental detail at the time and isn't mentioned again until a sequence right at the end, when we recall it as Mike improvises a tool to help him escape a tight spot.  It's very satisfying.

Michael figures out what to do
As you might expect from a low-budget effort, the special effects are a bit ropey but Coscarelli does manage a couple of memorable gory moments, including one device which became a centrepiece of the franchise that PHANTASM developed into.  However, the film looks good and is crisply shot in widescreen; the exteriors especially are good to look at.  The low-budget was probably a major reason why there are so few characters in this film - it's one of those that features almost no extras or shots of the general public.  It helps to create a more intense and also slightly surreal atmosphere, as if the action is being played out slightly outside of reality.  It's a trick that was often used on the brilliant TV series THE AVENGERS.


Another dimension
 A quick word about the cast.  Michael Baldwin makes a terrifically gonky but resourceful and resilient teenage hero and while Bill Thornbury as his brother Jody is a more traditional blandly handsome horror lead, he isn't without wit and charm.  Their friend Reggie, played by Reggie Bannister, is a hoot - a balding, pony-tailed schlub he may be, but he's a brave and loyal one too.  And then there's Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man.  He is truly the stuff of nightmares: a seemingly unstoppable and implacably evil presence who is genuinely frightening even when simply striding down the street.

He's tall and he's a man: he's the Tall Man

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