Monday, August 12, 2013

The Tick-Tock Initiation: PHANTASM (1979)

Tick-Tockality: (i.e. tick-tock momentum) The sense of dread created in a horror film through use of prolonged real time (or slower) narrative pacing, ideally beginning around the magic hour (twilight). First employed in horror by Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton in The Leopard Man, and perfected in the early films of John Carpenter, the ideal tick-tocka momentum begins anywhere from 24 hours before to the late afternoon of, the climactic anticipatory night, i.e. Halloween or Carrie's Prom. The desired effect is a sense of inescapable existential dread of what's coming at the onset of the darkness, imbuing even innocuous details with uncanny unease, ideally ending at dawn, ala Scream.
Part of the success of this strategy may stem from audience familiarity with tricks of Deleuzian 'movement-image', as seen in sprawling historical epics, wherein whole decades fly by between busy but static tableaux of eventful key moments (coming-out parties, weddings, dances, battlefronts, hospitals, front porches) such as seen in Gone with the Wind. Slower movement within a single 'ordinary' scene --where nothing special seems to be happening (such as Rhett's daughter's riding her pony around on the track while her parents watch) denote imminent tragedy, i.e. there's only one reason they'd show a close-up of Ruby Keeler's ankles walking down the dressing room stairs, and show the whole stairs in advance in a 30s show biz melodrama. Tick-tock momentum subverts our familiarity with this tactic:  just keep showing foreshadowing details like the ankle, and keep going from there, each slow step, building the suspense with a progression of possible foreshadowing, yoked to our ancient anxiety about the coming of the night, `the sweet beauty a good cinematographer can get at magic hour making the sky blaze pumpkin orange.
Maybe you need to have been an impressionable, easily-spooked kid in the latter part of the drive-in's heyday (the 70s), with its comfy old monster UHF afternoons punctuated by new, genuinely threatening monster R-rated TV spots, to resonate to the setting sun's weird power; the presence of fellow kids and family somehow only adding to the sense of vulnerability. Parents opening their coolers of beer and lawn chairs as the sun's last rays streaked away overhead, like a last chance to exit the ride over the cliff; the unsurmountable escape wall of the white screen looming overhead over the tattered swing set; the booming dim echo of the speaker boxes bouncing against the car windows--who knows what was going on in those other cars once the sun finally set? A child's imagination can be more real, more vivid, than an adult's perceptions of reality. Without video tapes to confirm or rewind, whatever we saw onscreen became the stuff of future summarizing; we would 'tell' movies to each other, especially if we were too young to see it ourselves, embellished a thousandfold as recess gossip. The special effects needed only suggest things for our rampant imagination to fill in the blank spots, which then assumed, through the telephone game-variations of memory, in relaying their plots and gore to fellow kids at recess, the stuff of shattering, true myth. The level of campfire terror we conjured up in each other was so intense it took me until I started drinking and smoking pot at age 17 to finally escape its squirrely, paranoid side effects. 

Such a movie was Phantasm; no one had seen it, but we knew a kid was in it from the crazy trailers with their silver balls flying through grey mausoleums, so new and strange none of us would even talk about how scary it was. We'd all seen the trailer, but none of us had seen the movie --a perfect combination for viral hype to wildfire through the playground. For me, for example, I still remember that I saw it at the drive-in during the coming attractions, while the sky still had some orange, while hanging out near the swing set and rusty sliding board that rested right below the screen. I had seen a lot of scary trailers but nothing so utterly weird, and it had a kid in it, running around a sterile grey bathroom-style mausoleum chased by a mysterious man in black, very tall, and a silver sphere with a spike in it. No one element was itself scary, but I noticed that I had raced back to the car by the time it was over.

Ruscha gets it

I mention this because prior to directing and writing Phantasm (1979), Don Coscarelli was shooting kid movies, like Kenny and Co, in which he showed a real knack for connecting with 70s-style sci-fi fan reprobates -- the ones like me-- who would have punched you in the face rather than admit they cried at Benji (1974).

Phantasm's genesis began when Don wanted to adapt Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes but then Disney snagged the rights. So Coscarelli crafted his own dark fairytale about a tall strange visitor who comes to town and steals souls, setting it in a mortuary instead of a carnival and making the central relationship not between a couple of teens, all romantic and ridden with the usual sexual anxiety, but fraternal, an 'older brother' cinema, the relation between a kid, his cool older brother, and his cool friend, Reggie, an ice cream truck driver (any kid's ideal friend for his older brother). We hated to see kids in movies (too close to home!) but scrappy kids who could throw down in a fight, with his main worry being that his older brother--his sole caregiver--is going to drive off and leave him all alone in their suburban 70s shag carpet home.

Rated R as Phantasm may be, this is clearly a kid's nightmare: macabre as Burton or Roald Dahl, but with more genuine menace and garage lab gore than either. It's Over the Edge meets It Came from Outer Space. As boys learning about it from our own older brothers and babysitters, the film became the ultimate myth-a film about us but denied us until we were old enough, or until it showed up on TV, its fangs plucked for prime time. This time the kid isn't a sap; he's a plucky kid who is good with cars! He's afraid of his own shadow, but still brave enough to venture into a mortuary at night; he rides a motorbike! He's crafty enough to tape a hunting knife to his ankle (and smart enough to use a lighter to keep a coffin lid propped up just high enough see out of without drawing attention (and cool enough to have a lighter in the first place!) and with the chutzpah to run, hide, and fire shotguns through the sun roof of his older brother's speeding Barracuda. Plus the neighborhood There's an old lady fortune teller neighbor, and great moments like when Reggie drops by with his guitar for a quick porch jam.

The weird secrets of the other dimension and dead soul enslavement make a nice contrast to these cool moments, providing a fine metaphor for not just where parents go when they die but where they work, the void they disappear into for most of the week, before they come back beaten and bowed low, or even more immediate where older brothers go when they're off doing cool adult shit - and following the little brother as he follows the older one is a completely new-to-horror then or now kind of dread. Just as we dread the dark secrets our older brother is up to, yet crave to be let in on them, we fear having to get a job out there in that mysterious void, and sense in both a fear of the elderly and the slow but inexorable escalator and the fear we'll get sucked under those jagged teeth at the top (or bottom).

In the Spielbergian make-over of children's horror films in the 80s, kids lost that edge of looming responsibility, quick-thinking and readiness for violence (as opposed to being passive little bully magnets) but in the 70s we knew we weren't safe, and felt exposed to the dangers around us, but it made us sharp. All the joys of life were outdoors, ideally at night. We didn't have cell phones. When we had to sleep we clutched toy guns the way priests clutch crosses in the thick of an exorcism. Today's parents think any kid with a gun is going to cause a Columbine, anything too scary will give them nightmares. So fucking what if they do?! They should have nightmares! Kids are already scared, if they have any brains. Shit is scary out there and you're too little to do much about it except run; even old women are stronger than you in a fight. Spooky movies just remind them to stay on their guard, to not let the sameness of modern life trick them into slackening their grip on the door knob.  Let the adults take the facade of death, the mausoleums and funerals, at face value, as kids we saw deeper, we noticed the little details didn't add up, and we knew nothing was ever as secure as the funeral director's measured tones tried to make it.

Halloween (1978), which was still circling drive-ins as a second feature in '79, may have launched a thousand slasher film imitators, but few of them caught how to make a movie scary on this 'seeing deeper' tick-tock momentum aspect. They got the topography right--knives, teenagers, blood, masks--and never bothered to capture the 'deeper' vision --the inexorable pacing Carpenter mastered, i.e. the deeper perception of being fully in the moment, and playing eerie synthesizer music during a slowed down suburban idyll until the unease and anxiety of nightmares formed out of thin air.

In its fuzzy horror glory, Coscarelli's Phantasm's mythos is totally unified even its freeform reversals and misdirections. Once can connect it to Lovecraft as well more recent 'nonfiction' writers like David Icke, Nigel Kerner, who theorize that after death our newly separated souls might be intercepted by a demonic force before we reach the white light, and then used as fuel for UFOs, or ground up for experiments and recycling. Our souls could be picked over like the bloodless cattle mutilations. The main Phantasm bad guy (Angus Scrimm) known only as The Tall Man turns souls into weapons (the spiked, silver balls) and stores the crushed down bodies into kegs for easy shipping home to his dimension through a tuning fork gateway --the use of sound vibrations to transfer between dimensions is also legitimate weird theory, 'acoustic levitation' which ascribes the building of pyramids by using sound vibration to convert huge stones to weightless floating states. 

A great example of a real case near-death experience (NDE) that fits this bill pretty well can be found in Nick Redfern's Final Events. "(Paul) Garratt said that he was confronted by a never-ending, light blue, sandy landscape that was dominated by a writhing mass of an untold number of naked human beings, screaming in what sounded like torturous agony" the sky was filled with pulsing flying saucer crafts, he watched them stop above the people
"then bathed each and every one of them in a green, sickly glow.... small balls of light seemed to fly from the bodies of the people... which were then sucked up into the flying saucers."
"At this point, an eerie and deafening silence overcame the huge mass of people, who duly rose to their feet as one and collectively stumbled and shuffled in hundreds of thousands across the barren landscape--like in a George Romero zombie film--towards a large black-hole that now materialized in the distance." (99)
I don't know if Coscarelli has read up on NDEs or not; perhaps his vision originated in a zone of his unconscious where the dark (but subjectively interpreted), coupled to some direct film references, which to his credit Coscarelli doesn't deign to hide: the tall man's evil minions look like jawas (Star Wars was only three years old); the way darkness laps at the edges of the screen and the tick-tock score echo Halloween (the year before); an old lady fortune teller works one of those hand-in-the-box Dune fear-control tests on Mike. What Coscarelli does achieve all on his own is the way he removes any sense of inequality between waking and dreaming life: Mike's sudden wake-ups from nightmares don't carry the feeling of a cheap scare for no reason like they do in American Werewolf in London or Cat People (1982), for example. With Coscarelli, like Lovecraft, Lynch, or Bunuel, dreams are just as valid as the waking life, maybe even more 'true.' He's not just sticking this references in there to try and cover all his bases and provide weird trailer moments; Coscarelli's mythos is more paranormally cohesive than any of his predecessors' and more brave. They don't dare answer the big, final curtain question, the one children ask and adults never answer.

Coscarelli answers it, and he goes all the way.

Now, you don't need all that parapsychological theorizing to dig the mortal coil dread going on in the Phantasm series, in fact you can just dig the rapid aging of the cast, because the four main principles from the first film -- the kid, A. Michael Baldwin (as Mike, though he's played as older by a different actor in part 2, a decision probably made due to Baldwin's non-movie star face and the bigger budget allowing the hiring of James Le Gros in the role), Bill Thornbury as his older brother Jody, Reggie Bannister, and as the sinister tall man, Angus Scrimm -- all stick around for the subsequent installments, which were released over a 20 year period but within the narrative span only a few weeks or months. These actors don't ever appear in much else, so it's a shock to see what is supposed to be merely a few days or hours later within the overarching narrative take such a massive toll on their faces and body language. Myriad worry lines drain Reggie's Jeremy Piven-style charimsa until all that remains is a sad guy trying to get laid in a world full of yellow blood vomit hell cops. He looks beaten but still fixing up sheds to look like seduction zones, moseying up to strange women in ghost towns, and wearily quipping after kills foes of various sizes. Quips were stale by the later films, but Reggie didn't get that memo, but that's part of the series' charms, the Phantasm series never gets any memo.

Young Mike (top); Old Mike (bottom) - IV
Phantasm would be too wild and weird to truly scare like Halloween were it not for Coscarelli's ability to generate the sense of something genuinely stake in the outcome, which most filmmakers presume means flashbacks, boring breakfasts with the cliche collection of family, etc. Coscarelli and Carpenter know that we need to see whole uninterrupted minutes elapse in the character's presence, to synchronize ourselves with their rhythms, rather than jumping around in eight different directions like so many horror movies today; and that doesn't mean lots of wasted time standing in corridors or saying "hello?". No one would ever make a movie like Halloween now because so little actually happens until the last 25 minutes. Carpenter and co-screenwriter Debra Hill spend a lot of time establishing what girl is picking up what guy to come over to whomever's house once it's free free of parents (with Hill taking the time to provide accurate, real life girl dialogue) at which time, checking in on the phone with each other--but it's still scary just from music and camera POV location; that's the tick-tock momentum. Imagine how much less scary it would be if they showed other random people getting knocked off, stressing the blood and body count over character... then you'd have crap like Halloween 2.

Maybe all children have to learn to be masochists just to survive, so small and helpless are they, and part of that may come from our ancient use of male initiation ceremonies to demarcate the line between manhood and boyziness: girls don't need initiation since nature has menstruation to traumatize them, forever; but male initiatory tribal ceremonies understood the psychological need for such trauma in boys as well. It only survives today in the form of, alas, fraternity or military hazing, but those are rites initiated by choice; a boy in a tribal society has no choice--it's inescapable, and that dread's allowed to build and build. We then lost that sense of inescapable dread/initiation until the 70s when it was gratified by our dread of the gore in our first R-rated movie. We who trembled at the coming drive-in night were unique in that respect: R-rated films didn't even exist when our parents were kids, and then video arrived during our teenage years, making it suddenly possible for our younger siblings to rent Clockwork Orange and Dawn of the Dead and watch them over breakfast with our moms. Any fear of R-rated gore never has any time to generate.

But in the 70s, just knowing  hard stuff was only out there, at theaters that we couldn't get into, launched an electirc gravitic dread in our spines, like I get now only when looking straight down while leaning over a tall building without a handrail.

The ad that scorched my 6 year-old mind
The most terrifying commercial ever for me in that regard was Torso (1973). The raspy male voice that used to hiss "Rated R...." after shocking 2-3 second snippets of scenes---like this sexy girl pleading and crawling through the mud in her nightgown while a masked killer advances on her with a hacksaw-- burned into my soul, and I'd get that sickly sexual twisting feeling, the type I only get now from looking over a dangerous ledge or plunging down a log flume.

But with VHS, that giddy terror gave way (for me at least) into depression from watching too many bloody horror movies instead of being outside playing, and from a kind of negative misogynistic osmosis, as well as a crushing disappointment that no amount of pan and scan TV room horror could ever compete with what we had imagined. And yet we had already seen too much and our faith in our fellow man and the feeling of being safe in our suburban houses at night. It had really begun, probably with renting A Clockwork Orange, and seeing the violent videos Alex sees, all raw and shocking yet dull and flat, they seemed like, real, as if a fake movie within a fictional film somehow created a double negative, and so these films played real. (the way they do with the snuff films found in the film, Vacancy [4])

So yeah, I attribute the rise in overprotective parental hysteria and nanny state fascism to the arrival of video rentals. We gained overexposure to imaginary danger at the expense of exposure to actual physical kind; in the process we also lost the rite of initiation. If the minute after hearing about some gruesome scene in a movie you can watch it on your phone in class, well, you don't have time to get scared, so there's nothing to have to use courage to overcome. It's just a lot of fake blood and acting. There's no initiatory fear and catharsis. You might be building a tolerance for violent images, but that's not going to help with the initiation need that's stifling your soul; there's no ceremony to mark your courage. The first one I saw? Outland (1981), at 14. We heard guys exploded from exposure to space sans suits, and that's where the dread came from. It was something to boast of.

Now of course anything even approaching some sort of hazing as a passage to becoming a man is considered a crime, but even the shockmeisters knew that engendering the fear of what was coming was more important than the thing itself. Generating fear helps us realize there was never nothing there to fear in the first place. Facing it, our older cooler friends feel obligated to be nice to us, to let us into the cool world. (see Dazed and Confused.) Running away from the fear stifles you and earns contempt. Seeing Mike and Jody roaring down the road in their '71 'Cuda (below) brings that back. This was a time when life was dangerous, and most importantly, so were we. (See also my analysis of the best movie about being a kid in that era, Over the Edge).

This. This you can trust. 
Awash in desolate suburban blight, dark, twisting woods, empty plains, fire-damaged barns, cobwebs trailing down from street signs, Phantasm leaves us with the feeling one has crossed somewhere back from banal day reality into unreal nightmare. These landscapes do exist, even more so now. I saw this desolation most in western Oregon. Every storefront along the road closed and boarded up and not a soul for miles and miles, yet you feel your car is being followed some tall shadow you try to tell yourself is only a tree in the dark of your rearview. Your tank's been on 'E' for an hour and when you see that white light in the distance you know it's a 24-hour Exxon station dropped from the sky by God's Jesus's own flying saucer. Every fellow traveler you meet smiles at you, for they too have survived the swallowed darkness of the empty expanses of highway and the feeling the world has ended and together you are grateful in a profound deep way only spooked lost travelers riding on empty through abandoned countryside know, or people leaving a very scary movie as one quivering mass edging towards their cars.

To get back to that frame of mind, where the setting sun strikes you with giddy drive-in terror and you long for the woodsman Exxon deliverer, first you have to surrender your 80s guns and your 90s disaffection and your 00s sincerity, back before VHS and Betamax and cable. Return to the time horror movies created far more dread with a single modulating synthesizer than any John Williams-ish overthought orchestra, when R-rated movie storytellers worked each other into frenzies of fear, describing events from films they'd seen or heard about, lingering over the traumatic scenes and embellishing on what they heard as needed for petrifying effect. (2) This is what Phantasm is all about, the fractured but impelling rantings of an imaginative child's mind as he hears the scraping of the branches on the window and tries to sleep; it comes to us as a half-dream hybrid myth, already re-spun by a telephone game's worth of spooky child imagination, it's fiction for the boy seeking initiation into guns, beer, muscle car engines, and beer--the lore of the cool American older brother. It's fiction, yet it still feels truer than anything contemporary adulthood has to offer.


1. The 'blanks' --such as the fate of the captured girls (Reggie just says he found them and released them but we never see it) were probably a result of drastic cuts made by Don himself. According to the trivia notes on imdb: "This film's original running time was more than three hours, but writer/ director Don Coscarelli decided that that was far too long for it to hold people's attention and made numerous cuts to the film. Some of the unused footage was located in the late 1990s and became the framework for Phantasm IV: Oblivion. The rest of the footage is believed to be lost. " -Now that'a a damn shame, even if the unused footage is brilliantly mixed into IV and does save it from the edge of crappiness.
2. I'm still finding movies I remember hearing about from other kids, like Five Million Years to Earth, movies I was sure were made up. 
4. See: 2004: Collateral Torture (Bright Lights After Dark)


  1. Great film, indeed. My friend and I really enjoy it, too. It's really interesting to me, you bringing up the childhood elements in the film, that the kid is a boy, but is also super androgynous. The film's insane. At first I thought of it something Sci-Fi would play at 12AM, then some Saturday morning elements in there. I was like, "What the fuck is even going ooon?!," at some points, haha. But, it's a great movie like that. "John Dies at the End" really crystallized the style for me. "Bubba Ho-Tep" is a genuine classic.

  2. teddy crescendo13 August, 2013

    Phantasms 1, 3, and 4 are all OK but nothing more than that, where-as Phantasm 2 is perfection, easily the best in the series, i always loved the way it combines the atmosphere and cosyness of the older horror movies with the gross-out special effects of the modern ones, for me thats an irresistable combination. Phantasm 2 was a movie where everything fell into place superbly.

  3. Thanks Teddy, I dig Phantasm II too, need to see it again. And Willie C., you're damned right. The Coscarelli mythos--Hardy Boys meet HP Lovecraft-- has been crystalized with John Dies at the End,

  4. The slowed-down sunset thing is a fantastic idea. Slowed-down time in general, actually.

    I like when a movie sends messages on different levels and the viewer can't put his finger on what it is. Kubrick's stuff do that - a different message is being sent to different parts of your brain.

    Like so many of the films you write about, I've never seen Phantasm, and your discussion might well be better than anything in the actual film (that tends to happen with your blogs!).

    But I think that getting scared as a kid is priceless and it sticks with you throughout your life when done properly!


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