Thursday, October 29, 2009

Horror by the Decade: Phantasm

(As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, each year to celebrate Halloween I post on topics relevant to that holiday. This year I have decided do something slightly different and write a post on a classic horror film, one from each decade from the Twenties to the Eighties, during the seven days preceding Halloween. This is the sixth post in this series, featuring a movie from the Seventies)

By 1979 the cycle towards occult horror which had begun in the late Sixties was finally coming to an end. At the same time the cycle towards slasher films had not really gotten started, even though Halloween had just been released the year before. With no one type of horror movie dominating the genre at the time, it should not be surprising that a few of the horror movies released in 1979 were decidedly different. Ridley Scott's Alien took horror into outer space, as the crew of a spaceship faced a monstrous extraterrestrial. Another movie also blended science fiction and horror, although in a wholly different way. Phantasm may have been the first movie to ever blend elements of Gothic horror with elements of science fiction.

Phantasm centred on thirteen year old orphan Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) and his twenty four year old brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) who was taking care of him. The two become suspicious of a mysterious undertaker known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) when people start dying mysteriously in their small town. Aided by Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the local ice cream vendor, the three young men learn the terrifying truth about The Tall Man, whose weapons include killer dwarves (once the souls of the damned) and mysterious chrome spheres which are utterly deadly.

Don Coscarelli, the man who created Phantasm and its sequels, was only 19 when he became the youngest director to ever have his film distributed by a major studio. His film, Jim the World's Greatest  was a drama about a teenage boy dealing with an alcoholic father. It was distributed by Universal Pictures in 1976. His second film, Kenny and Company, also released in 1976, was a gentle comedy about a twelve year old boy. It was after Coscarelli had attended a sneak preview of Kenny and Company that he realised he should be directing horror movies. One of the scenes in Kenny and Company was set in a haunted house in which a man in a monster costume leaped out. It was at that point that the whole audience screamed.  It was then that Coscarelli decided his next film should be a horror movie.

To write his horror film, Coscarelli hid himself away in a mountain cabin isolated from civilisation, just outside Los Angeles. For inspiration he drew upon a nightmare he once had when he was in his late teens. In the nightmare he was running down marble corridors which never seemed to end. Pursuing him was a silver, metallic sphere whose purpose was apparently to sink the sharp razors it contained deep inside his skull. Coscarelli based the lead characters in the film upon actors from his previous films. In all Coscarelli stayed at the cabin for three weeks, at the end of which he had produced the rough draft of Phantasm. He chose the name Phantasm as it is a word that occurs frequently in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Casting Phantasm would not be an overly difficult chore as Don Coscarelli based the major characters upon actors with whom he had worked. A. Michael Baldwin, who played Mike in the film, had been the star of Coscarelli's film Kenny and Company. Reggie Bannister, who played Reggie, had appeared in both of Coscarelli's prior films. Angus Scrimm had appeared in Coascarelli's film Jim the World's Greatest. It was only in the case of Mike's older brother Jody that Coscarelli did not get the actor he had originally conceived in the role.  Gregory Harrison, best known for his role in Trapper John M.D., was the actor Coscarelli had originally wanted in the role. He had previously appeared in Coascarelli's film Jim the World's Greatest. Harrison turned the role down, forcing Coscarelli to find another actor. The part of Jody ultimately went to Bill Thornbury.

Like Coscarelli's previous two films, Phantasm would be a low budget, independent film. Its budget was a mere $300,000. To keep costs down, it was decided that the movie would only be filmed in two locations. One was a warehouse in San Fernando Valley in which sets were built. The other was a house which not only serve as Mike and Jody's house in the film, but as a home for the film's crew while the movie was shooting. Initially Coscarelli had wanted to shoot parts of the film in a real mausoleum, but after visiting many mausoleums in the area decided against it. It simply would not have been possible to shoot many of the film's action sequences in an actual mausoleum.Graphic artist Mark Arnel, one of Coscarelli's friends from school, was then hired to design the film's mausoleum. The mausoleum set simply consisted of a single corridor, intersected by two hallways at its midway point and ending in an eight sided rotunda. With some ingenious camera work, the crew of Phantasm was able to create the illusion of a huge mausoleum using this one set.

Central to the success of Phantasm would be The Tall Man's most memorable weapons, the silver spheres. The spheres were designed by Willard Green, who only asked $1,100 for their creation. Sadly, he died before he could even be paid. Of course, the spheres that Green designed could not actually fly, so that the production crew had to find a way of making them do so. Different means of making the spheres fly were tested, including firing the spheres, powered by model rocket engines,  down tight piano wires. Unfortunately, none of the tested ways of making the spheres fly looked convincing. At last the crew arrived at a simple solution to make the spheres fly. The spheres would be hurled from behind the camera by art director David Gavin Brown, who had been a baseball pitcher in high school. The footage of the sphere was then shot in reverse. To make it appear that a sphere had embedded itself in someone's head, the sphere as simply stuck the person's head and then pulled off. This footage would then also be reversed.

Other effects on Phantasm were also very simple. At 6 foot 4 inches, Angus Scrimm was already very tall. To make him appear even taller, he wore suits that were several sizes too small and boots with three inch lifts in them. In a sequence in which The Tall Man lifted a coffin and put it in the back of hearse all by himself, the coffin was simply made of balsa wood and a rope attached to it, out of sight of the camera. The Tall Man's killer dwarves were simply played by children.

Because Phantasm was made on a shoestring budget, certain cost cutting measures were taken. Don Coscarelli did not own the equipment necessary to film Phantasm. As a result, he rented the equipment necessary to film the movie on Friday, shot the film all weekend, and then returned it on Monday. In doing so he could use the equipment for two days, while actually only paying for one. Although the credits would seem to indicate that the production design, makeup and costume design were done by more than one person, they were actually done by only one individual. Coscarelli's mother, Kate Coscarelli handled all of this, from decorating the sets to even designing the original makeup for The Tall Man.

Upon completion Phantasm had a running time of over three hours. Don Coscarelli decided that this was far too long and pared the film down to 88 minutes. While some of this footage was lost, much of it would be used in the third sequel to the movie, Phantasm: Oblivion. Even with so much footage cut from the film, Phantasm would run afoul of the MPAA ratings board. They initially gave Phantasm an X rating  because of two scenes in the film. The first was the notorious scene in which one of the silver spheres kills a man. the second was a scene in which a man, after having been killed, urinating on the floor beneath him. In the days before the NC-17 rating, the X rating was the kiss of death as far as a movie's box office potential was concerned. Fortunately, Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin, who had seen the film,  intervened and made a call to one of his friends who was on the ratings board. Phantasm was then given an $ rating with the infamous silver sphere sequence in tact.

Released on March 28, 1979, Phantasm seemed to a movie that critics either loved or hated. Charles Champlin of The Los Angeles Times and Vincent Canby of The New York Times gave the film sterling reviews. Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin both gave the film rather poor notices. Audiences proved to be a bit more fond of Phantasm. Made for only $300,000, the film grossed $11,988,469--an impressive number for a film which was produced, written, and directed by one man with a minimal budget. In the years that have followed it has become considered a cult classic among horror movie fans. In the end it would be followed by three sequels and inspire a good deal of merchandising.

Don Coscarelli set out simply to make a scary movie with Phantasm, and there can be little doubt that he succeeded.  Phantasm may have been the most frightening movie of 1979, even more so than Alien. What makes Phantasm so effective as a horror movie is that Coscarelli chose to capitalise on the common, childhood fears. The movie deals directly with the fear of abandonment as twelve year old Mike worries that his older brother Jody will leave him. It also deals with the fear of death in the form of The Tall Man, a villain posing as an undertaker, whose base is a mausoleum and who utilises the dead to his own evil ends. More than anything else, Phantasm deals with the fear of the unknown, as young Mike is thrown into a world of deadly silver spheres, killer dwarves, gateways to other worlds, and the inhuman villain known as The Tall Man. It is perhaps significant that Mike is twelve years old, an age where he is not quite a young child, but not quite an adolescent either. In some respects the strange world of Phantasm could be seen as a metaphor for the rather strange world of growing up.

Although shot on a very low budget, Phantasm looks like a much more expensive film. While most of the effects were simple, they look very convincing and hold up even today. The sets also look quite realistic--it is hard to believe that the mausoleum scenes were filmed using only one set.

Phantasm also benefited from good performances from its two leads. A. Michael Baldwin was quite effective as Mike, the young orphan who must face his fears of abandonment and death incarnate (The Tall Man). Angus Scrimm was also superb as The Tall Man, turning the otherworldly mortician into one of the most iconic villains of horror movies in the past thirty years.

Of course, none of this is to say that Phantasm is a perfect film. There are times when the movie seems disjointed. And beyond A. Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm, the acting is not always up to par. There are times when the movie nearly borders on camp. Fortunately, these flaws do not detract from a film, the whole of which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Phantasm became a cult classic for the simple reason that it is a scary movie that actually delivers on its promise to scare individuals. In centring on common childhood fears, Phantasm struck directly at the child within all of us. It is for that reason that Phantasm is still remembered, while so many of its contemporaries were forgotten.

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