[PHANTASM WEEK] Death Is But A Dream

There are many reasons to look forward to PHANTASM: REMASTERED: for its spinning silver sphere device, for Angus Scrimm’s compelling and sinister presence as the Tall Man, Fred Myrow’s haunting score, and for nightmarish imagery such as miniature grave-robbing minions that is never fully explained. What I find so fascinating about the film is its reliance on dream logic, specifically when it deals with death. Interestingly enough, you can almost follow a clear progression from the first to the second film as the central character Mike grows up. The first film is clearly a childhood reaction to death and being kept in the dark, while the second film emerges as a male adult fantasy about taking control of your fate and tracking your nightmares down.

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Some of the most primal fears of our childhood relate to dying, and Mike is clearly anxious when it comes to death. He has lost his parents and follows his older brother Jody around everywhere, clearly scared of losing him as well. When Jody and his friend Reggie’s good friend is killed, Mike’s morbid curiosity gets the better of him and he comes to the cemetery to watch the funeral with binoculars, though Jody wanted to shield him. That is when he sees the first of several subtly bizarre scenes, a caretaker known as the Tall Man lifting a casket into the back of a truck all on his own. This is the first hint of the use of dream logic in coping with death, implying either that the caretaker is supernaturally strong or that the body has become unusually light and inconsequential.

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Mike’s subsequent investigation of the cemetery and funeral home reflects a quest to uncover the mysteries of death, where the answers are much more bizarre than any we could come up with in our nightmares. Featuring the by-now famous flying metal blood-sucking spheres, and an alternate dimension where dead people are taken and turned into miniature slaves, Coscarelli’s vision of death is almost as illogical as death itself. At first we think Mike alone may be witnessing these strange visions, and Jody doesn’t believe him until he presents the evidence of disembodied fingers wiggling around in yellow blood inside a box. Soon Mike ropes Jody and Reggie into exploring with him and we find that these are not just anxious childhood dreams, but general nightmares about what happens when you die.

What happens when we die? That is one of the mortal mysteries we all struggle with. To think that our loved ones could be taken from their graves in a sinister plot to turn them into intergalactic slaves is the ultimate indignity compared to imagining that they will rest eternally or ascend to some sort of afterlife. By pitting Mike against this indignity, Coscarelli reveals a young boy struggling with his own anxiety about death (and the afterlife) by overcoming something much worse than his deepest fears could have imagined. As Mike initially tries to convince everyone else of the Tall Man’s machinations, it is easy enough to believe for a time he is suffering from bizarre delusions brought on by his anxiety about death.

In PHANTASM’S third act, there is a famous reveal that seems to want to try to spin the whole film as dream logic, but it’s much more clever than that. It is revealed that Mike’s brother Jody is the one who died, not Jody’s friend, which helps explain Mike’s desperate quest and following Jody around everywhere. However, although Reggie, who has now become Mike’s guardian, tries to explain that Jody died in a car accident, Mike is still convinced that the Tall Man got him. Surely, we think, this really was then a whole series of deranged fantasies based on the anxiety of one boy who has been deeply affected by death and grief. And then we see the final closing image of the Tall Man and hear the infamous line delivered: “Boooyyyy” and know the film is not letting us get away that easily. There is still at least some reality to this gruesome and unsettling vision of death.

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PHANTASM II picks up right where we left off, revealing that Mike is now in a psychiatric ward dealing with his visions of the Tall Man. Reggie picks him up, again listening to Mike’s tale in disbelief, until he finds his entire house and everyone he loved waiting for them blown up in a house fire that Mike predicted would happen. Finally accepting Mike’s purported delusions as truth, they are to embark on a quest to hunt down the villainous Tall Man who took both of their families away.

Whereas PHANTASM is very much a film about trying to understand and cope with death through a childhood or adolescent perspective, it’s sequel is much more of an action movie that moves the battle into the realm of the physical adult male fantasy. Mike has had constant dreams since his stay at the psych ward about Liz Reynolds, a beautiful female also troubled by the Tall Man who needs his help. He and Reggie stock up on weapons, at a local hardware store: chainsaws, blowtorches, and a quadruple barrled shotgun (and of course, pay the tab). Mike is in control of his fate now, and sets out to defeat the Tall Man.

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PHANTASM II is not the visionary film its predecessor was, providing a more straightforward horror flick rather than rolling out dreamlike imagery without explaining every set piece. However, it is interesting to see a little bit more of the inner workings of the Tall Man’s operation, such as how the spheres really work, how he fills bodies with fluid to re-animate them, and Liz’s grandmother turned into one of the little people. The fact that we spend more time behind the scenes until the internal logic almost makes sense seems to go along with the theme of the film, that Mike believes vehemently in his mission and has identified everything the Tall Man is doing and that he must be defeated.

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Eventually Mike’s fantasy is fulfilled; he even meets up with Liz, and together they are able to execute their revenge on the Tall Man for taking away people they love. They are able to dissolve the threat of the Tall Man in a way that seems final, only to have a classic twist sprung on them on the way home—a beautiful hitchhiker picked up by Reggie earlier in the film (and another essential part of the adult male fantasy) turns out to be working for the Tall Man, and he is still present.

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The PHANTASM movies seem to present the Tall Man as a constant part of the universe of death, someone who seems comfortable to move in the narrow world between dream and reality. The endings of these films sometimes make us question how much really happened of what came before, but they always sink in with the ultimate reality that he is there, and thus, something else is there. Something just a little more sinister in death than we even imagine. One of life’s greatest fears and mysteries has several dark and intriguing dreamlike paths it can take us down, and Coscarelli imagines those paths beautifully.

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