2018 Film Essays

The Experience of Death in the ‘Phantasm’ Series

Here’s a fun thought exercise: close your eyes and try to think of absolutely nothing.

It’s an exercise that’s not just food for thought, but used in many meditation practices as well: the attempt to “clear your mind.” It’s also what each and every one of us do when we prepare to go to sleep every night. Yet it’s difficult, isn’t it? There’s always something there, some vague thought, some oddly recalled unrelated memory, some sensory feeling. In many ways, it’s impossible for a human being to comprehend the absence of existence. Yet that absence, barring any deeply held religious beliefs, is exactly what all of us are headed for when our time comes, sooner or later. If being left alone in forced solitude is a horrifying thought, how ghoulishly horrible is the concept of the idea of life just coming to a full and complete stop?

It’s ripe territory for horror, and certainly the fear of untimely death is perhaps the fundamental foundation of the entire genre. Yet many horror stories end at, or simply don’t go further than, a character’s death, leaving only a relative few to explore what might lay in the great beyond. These questions are explored all over horror literature (especially in the works of H.P. Lovecraft) yet aren’t widely seen on screen. If they are, it’s usually in terms of playing with established religious beliefs about the afterlife (such as in the Hellraiser series) or in terms of science-fiction (such as in 1990’s Flatliners) that explores how the human body actually does and could function in a death state. What makes the Phantasm series one of the most unique, in horror or any other genre, is that, in its use of dream logic and allegory, it is perhaps the best possible depiction of just how weird and unknowable the experience of death is.

That experience isn’t just limited to the person (or persons) dead, as the series attempts to address the discomfort modern society has with the inevitable. As creator Don Coscarelli says in Nucleus Films’ documentary about the franchise, Phantasmagoria (2005), “I’ve always been fascinated with the American way of death, and the way that bodies are taken by the mortician. Strange procedures are conducted on the corpse. The corpse comes back looking different. And there’s a grand ceremony with pageantry. Just very eerie and strange. Just seemed to me like this would be really fascinating subtext for a horror film.” Coscarelli’s first film in the series, 1979’s Phantasm (which was only the filmmaker’s third feature, made when he was just in his early 20s), begins with the concept he was first inspired by, as young Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and their pal Reggie (Reggie Bannister) attend the funeral of one of their peers. Mike notices instantly how the mortuary’s mortician, a Tall Man (Angus Scrimm, in the role that made him a horror icon), doesn’t bury the young man’s body but instead stores the coffin for later use. What is initially a subtextual implication that the people entrusted with preserving the dead are not acting honorably turns far more sinister when Mike discovers that the Tall Man is from another planet (or is that another dimension?) and turns mortuary corpses into shrunken, re-animated slaves. This revelation exploits one basic if irrational fear regarding death, which is that you are no longer in control of your own body when you die, and are at the mercy of strangers. It also is an upsetting thought for those still living, the idea that their loved ones aren’t being treated as promised.

Yet Phantasm goes further than that, as the entire film turns out to be a dream. Or… does it? Coscarelli fills the movie with scenes and set-pieces where anything can and does happen: a severed finger turning into a persistent killer fly, a hearse driven by seemingly no one, the Tall Man appearing anywhere at any moment, and, most famously, a flying silver sphere roving around the halls of the mortuary that has the ability to drill into one’s head and suck the blood out. All of this is nightmare imagery (in fact, Coscarelli admits to coming up with the silver sphere in a dream he had), and it’s presented in a somnambulant style, eerie and foreboding. It’s unclear, given the process of making Phantasm (which shot over a period of about two years, only on weekends, without ever having a completed script), how Coscarelli intended the disparate moments to run together, but the completed film is a fantastic representation of dream logic. Each new wild element gives way to casual, calm moments such as Reggie and Jody having an impromptu jam session with their guitars, and it all has the same mixture of randomness and specificity as a vivid dream does. The film’s ambiguity allows it to be interpreted a number of ways, chief among them the idea that the Tall Man isn’t just an emissary of death but rather Death itself, the “game” he speaks of in psychic narration to Mike; the game we all play as we continuously attempt to cheat death, to constantly run from it. This idea raises the question of just who, if anyone, in the movie is or was alive, as the film’s creepy strangeness could be seen as an experience of death.

Given this interpretation, Phantasm’s shock ending seems less a cliffhanger and more final, especially seeing as Coscarelli intended the film to be a stand-alone. After a decade, however, an opportunity to make a big budget sequel presented itself, and the Phantasm series continued. The sequels all treat the first film’s themes and intentions with respect, and fortuitously allow Coscarelli to eschew continuity when need be. Characters once dead (or “dead,” rather) come back to life, other characters suddenly and bizarrely are either killed off or vanish, and while the core of the main characters never wavers (especially the steadfast Reggie, who comes into his own as a horror action hero in the vein of Ash from the Evil Dead series), the world of Phantasm constantly morphs and changes. Phantasm II (1988) expands the Tall Man’s goals just as the film’s budget expands, with the alien mortician draining entire towns of their populace, making the villain into a Bram Stoker-esque figure (the film follows suit by having characters journal their thoughts in multiple voiceovers, echoing the epistolarian format of Stoker’s “Dracula”). Phantasm III (1994) leans more on the comedic and science-fiction elements of the series, exploring the origin and function of the silver spheres as well as the Tall Man’s enslavement technology. It gives a bit more tangibility to the mythology and the Tall Man himself, implying he could possibly be defeated. Phantasm IV (1998) explores the Tall Man’s origins, revealing he was once a kindly mortician and scientist who, through investigating death and the afterlife, exposed himself to a being that overtook him, turning him into a threat to humanity. The latest installment (and likely final one, given Scrimm’s passing just after completion), Phantasm: Ravager (2016), concerns a dying Reggie attempting to find his missing friends and defeat the Tall Man once and for all, a quest that may be never ending.

What’s remarkable about the Phantasm series is how all these sequels feel less like individual entries and more like extensions of the original film. A large part of that is undeniably due to Coscarelli being the writer and director of all of the films (save for Phantasm: Ravager, where Coscarelli ceded the director’s chair to David Hartman), avoiding the horror franchise trap of too many cooks and uncaring, exploitative studios pumping out sequels just to capitalize on the series’ name. Yet the more impressive aspect is how the films continue to be told in a allegorical manner, using dream logic to connect — as well as allow for interpretation — each new disparate element. Phantasm IV’s subtitle is Oblivion, which is a word typically used as a synonym for death, but its actual meaning is “the state of being unaware or unconscious of what is happening.” The film accurately portrays this meaning, with the pace, performances and music score evoking a constant sense of dread and confusion. That this experience is linked to a word referencing a state of afterlife only makes it more potent. One of the reasons the Phantasm series is so compelling and still so eerie to this day is that it manages to tell a story that both makes little logical sense and yet evokes a strong, pervasive mood, similar to the works of surrealists such as David Lynch and Shane Carruth. These are horror movies that both present a lot of terror on the screen and still leave much to the imagination. For as horrifying as that thought exercise about imagining the existence of nothing is, how much more terrifying is it to imagine being nowhere and with nothing… except a tiny silver sphere, its blades extended, constantly searching for blood. The Phantasm films may be the best and most consistent source for on-screen existential terror, and their dream logic that allows for numerous interpretations keeps them endlessly watchable.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City. 

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