Cine-Ween: How Phantasm Taught Me Why I Love Horror

As I’m sure is the case for most of the people reading this, horror movies have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was introduced to the genre by my mom, an avid horror fan who admittedly wasn’t terribly concerned with screening content prior to sticking it in front of her first born. Mine was a childhood spent wandering the horror section at my local mom and pop video store, anticipating those precious Friday the 13th marathons on USA, and spending October annoying the shit out of my parents until they took me to a haunted hayride.

Phantasm PosterBut while horror has always been a spooky, comforting blanket for me, it’s only within the last few years that I’ve explored just what draws me to the genre. And the catalyst for that push is a funky indie film that on paper shouldn’t affect me the way it does. I mean, this is a film about aliens from another dimension that steal fresh bodies from their graves, compress them into dwarves, and enlist them as unwilling employees on their home planet to… well, I actually don’t know what the hell they do there. Throw in some flying balls with brain-draining drills attached, and a question arises: why does Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, a film that by many accounts is low-budget schlock, resonate so deeply with me that it made me consider how I approach my love of the genre?

I think the reasons for this are twofold. The first is that hidden under the camp, Coscarelli has hidden a surprisingly poignant film that explores how we fear and deal with loss. Second, it’s a story that connects with me on a very personal level. My parents divorced when I was about five or six years old, and when they split I lived full time with my dad. Having lived through his own parents’ messy divorce and being forced to move around a lot, my dad wanted me to have more stability. So, I wound up living in the same house with him from when I was two years old until I left for college at eighteen. This will become important in a bit.

But first, a little bit of my history with the Phantasm films. I was familiar with the franchise from a young age, but primarily through catching bits and pieces of the Universal-backed sequel that leaned more heavily into the kinetic set pieces complete with flying body parts, four-barreled shotguns, and chainsaw duels. I don’t think I ever saw the original film in full until I was in my late teens as it was one of the few films I felt the urge to pick up as a blind buy. Coscarelli’s original is a much different film than its follow-up: more subdued in terms of its set pieces, but also more willing to fuck with the audience’s sense of reality. I found myself going back to it time and again, but it never occurred to me to wonder why. I figured the creepy atmosphere, a killer soundtrack, and even one or two gratuitous boob shots were reason enough.

At the time, that was all I needed out of my horror fandom. I didn’t have a lot of fellow horror fans in my circle of friends so I wasn’t compelled to dive into the films I loved with any degree of depth. But about six or seven years ago I discovered the increasingly interesting discourse being held about our beloved genre, and I was intrigued. Listening to a podcast discussion about the first two Phantasm films served as a pivotal moment for me as, for the first time ever, I found myself contemplating the narrative themes of a film to my own life experience.

Phantasm Tall Man
Our young hero Mike is essentially in a single parent household, with his older brother Jody standing in as a father figure after their parents died in a car accident. But Mike can tell that Jody is restless, and he’s terrified that Jody will leave him. I never fully realized that I had this same fear running in the back of my mind throughout most of my childhood. I had (and still have) a very close relationship with my dad, and I think there was always at least a low-key fear hiding in my subconscious that it could very easily be taken away. Not that I was ever afraid that he would abandon me, but there are of course a lot of different ways that you can lose a loved one.

Take, for instance, The Tall Man, a malevolent mortician/alien overlord who specializes in separating family members by all manner of horrible means. He can catfish them into post-coital murder. He can exsanguinate them with those flashy balls of his. Hell, he can just turn them into Jawas and ship them off to another dimension. And while the simplest interpretation for the Tall Man is that he represents a fear of death, I think what’s really scary about him is that he’s a malleable threat. He may kill your loved ones, or he may just take them from you and turn them into something you don’t recognize anymore. 

And that’s an important factor considering Mike’s relationship with Jody is about more than just presence. Jody, along with everyone’s favorite horndog purveyor of ice cream, Reggie, represent healthy masculine bonds (or at least as close as you could expect from the late ‘70s). And again this hits close to home in regards to the relationship I have with my old man. One of the things I most appreciate about how he raised me is that he never pushed an Alpha male philosophy on me. He cultivated an atmosphere where being a man wasn’t dependent on pushing down emotions or being the toughest guy in the room, and Jody and Reggie give off a similar vibe. They’re not macho assholes looking to flex literal or metaphorical muscles. They’re just a couple of musicians who are hot as love, man.

Of course, this being a horror movie, we can’t expect these relationships to survive unscathed. Coscarelli gives us not one but two instances that make me process loss in different ways. First, we get Reggie’s death, a chaotic moment in the movie’s climax that serves as the gut punch we’ve been dreading ever since The Tall Man made his presence known. With a knife to the stomach, Reggie is taken from Mike and Jody in a moment that’s grand and dramatic, serving as turning point for the movie as Mike and Jody become resolved to end The Tall Man once and for all after he takes Reggie.

Phantasm Reggie

But the more complex moment comes after we think The Tall Man has been destroyed, and we find out that much of what has just occurred is something of a nightmare fantasy that Mike has conjured to make sense of his real loss: Jody has died in a car accident. It’s a very understated moment, as we find out about it during a discussion Mike’s having with Reggie, who it turns out is still alive and well. The cutaway to Mike standing at Jody’s grave is such a harrowing moment because, unlike Reggie’s supposed death, there’s no grand exit. No big goodbye. It’s just Mike standing there alone, on an otherwise gorgeous day. And that’s what scares me. Not necessarily the moment of loss, but how I’m going to live with it afterwards.

Of course, with Phantasm being the surreal trip that it is, there are infinite arguments that could be made about what’s real and what’s not in the film. The final frame of the film, and of course the subsequent sequels, lean into the idea that everything happening is indeed real. But that’s what makes the film (and the series) so special. There are so many interpretations for the film, all of which are valid. This even includes a woman I heard at a recent screening laughing her way through most of the film. Initially, I ground my teeth at this woman’s lack of appreciation for a film that’s so important to me, until I realized that she genuinely loved it for being, as she saw it, B-movie trash. 

Ultimately, I realize what I love so much about Phantasm is also what I love so much about horror. It connects with people in very different, often very intimate ways. And ever since I realized I could articulate my love for Phantasm, I found myself craving the opportunity to do it again and again, which brings me to today where I can’t imagine a life without the opportunity to ramble on about our beloved horror genre. And for that I sincerely thank Mike, Jody, Reggie, and even The Tall Man.