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Phantasm

Last weekend was a truly awful one for film-lovers everywhere. On January 9th, word came down that Angus Scrimm was dead at the age of 89. In light of this sad news that broke the hearts of cult horror fans everywhere, I thought it was time to finally make the acquaintance of Scrimm’s trademark role.

If anyone knows who Angus Scrimm is, that certainly has a lot to do with one Don Coscarelli. This is the same guy who made such indescribably bugfuck works of low-budget cult horror as Bubba Ho-Tep and the film adaptation of John Dies at the End. But even before all of that, Coscarelli and Scrimm would respectively be known as the writer/director and star of an indescribably bugfuck work of low-budget cult horror called Phantasm. The film would later spawn three sequels (a fourth, Scrimm’s swan song and the series’ final entry, is due later this year), each one even crazier than the last.

Over the past forty years or so, the franchise has developed an improbably strong cult following. An especially prominent fan would be none other than J.J. Abrams, now the highest-domestic-grossing director of all time, who recently shepherded a high-def restoration of the original film. Abrams has even admitted to naming “Captain Phasma” of Episode VII after the movie and modeling the character’s chrome-plated design after the famous silver spheres of the franchise.

What is it about this movie that inspires such devotion? Well, to put it simply, the original film perfectly exemplifies the stuff that cult horror is made of.

Not only does the movie have a juvenile fascination with blood and boobies, but that juvenile fascination is embodied by a teenage protagonist (Mike, played by Michael Baldwin). The effects are most impressive in that they are somehow made passable despite what’s clearly a fishing line budget (as in, there are some shots in which we can clearly see the fishing line). The synthesizer score is repetitive and pathetic. The performances (with one exception we’ll get to later) are awful, and it’s abundantly obvious that Coscarelli built the movie and its characters around what talent he already knew he could secure on the cheap. The script is poorly written, and made even more incomprehensible by the hack job editing.

And yet in spite of all that, there is clearly a level of ingenuity here. The forcibly bad editing is parlayed into a dreamlike and surreal feeling throughout the movie. The filmmakers show more than enough creativity and skill to give us some magnificent shots and effective scares in spite of the threadbare budget.

What’s more, it’s an old established fact that geeks know their own. If somebody shows a sincere affection for geek culture without coming off as phony, geeks will respond in kind. And when this movie either references (“Dune’s Cantina”) or straight-up rips off (The gom jabbar trial, anyone?) the works of Frank Herbert in an overt way that shows clear love and understanding of the text, geeks will immediately accept Coscarelli as one of their own and embrace his work accordingly.

(See also: Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead, which notably pays tribute to The Hills Have Eyes.)

Basically put, this movie — like all the best cult movies — gets by on passion. Even if the filmmakers had a reach that far exceeded their grasp, they show a deeply sincere desire to create something brilliant and creative and terrifying. The passion is so infectious that it’s easy to get swept up in it and accept the movie on its own terms. It’s clearly a movie made by geeks for geeks, which makes it a project to be shared among like-minded fanatics.

Speaking of passion, let’s get to the late, great Angus Scrimm. I don’t know how Scrimm did it, but his performance lands perfectly in the Uncanny Valley. In his unsettling movements and tone of voice, Scrimm perfectly depicts the Tall Man as a strange and unknowable beast who tries and only barely succeeds at disguising himself as a human being. He only has a handful of lines, yet every single word from his mouth radiates menace. Moreover, his thin, gaunt, elderly appearance beautifully symbolizes the stereotypical undertaker. This movie is all about taking symbols, places, and people that we normally associate with death, and then turning them into something even more fantastic and sinister. It’s a fantastic approach to horror.

But then we have the film’s other iconic aspect, the silver sphere. The sphere only gets one scene, but it’s easily the most impressive kill in the movie. Hell, it’s probably where 80-90 percent of the filmmakers’ time and budget went in terms of special effects. Yet it’s never explained what these spheres are, where they came from, how they work, or what more they could potentially do. These incredible killing machines are only used once, and then shot down in midair. Basically put, it’s so much potential that’s only partly realized, more a collection of half-baked ideas without any logical context that just looked cool. Which is the whole movie in a nutshell.

I won’t even try to describe the plot of Phantasm, partly because so much of the fun is in the discovery. But also because the plot is total nonsense. Even if I tried to diagram the basics of who does what and why, it’s just not possible to do that in any way that makes sense. Yet it’s easy to see why this movie spawned so many sequels — there are so many loose plot threads dangling and so many fascinating ideas left unexplored that we the audience are left wanting to know exactly what’s going on. This despite the probability that this whole “mythology” could be nothing more than an incoherent mess of half-baked ideas, thrown together without any thought or planning, and held together with nothing more than showmanship and the hope that no one will look too closely or think too hard.

(Side note: In retrospect, it’s a lot easier to believe that J.J. Abrams is a fan. The whole Bad Robot team could owe their careers to this picture.)

If you have even a passing interest in cult horror, this film is indispensable. If you’re a fan of no-budget productions that succeed through sheer creativity and passion, this one is better than most I’ve seen. But anyone looking for a straightforward horror film or even a conventionally good film should look elsewhere.

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