When you think of iconic horror villains, what names come to mind? Michael Myers? Freddie Krueger? Jason Voorhees? Leatherface? For many, there's another name that comes to mind, and it's so fitting and menacing in its simplicity... of course, I'm talking about the interplanetary fiend known as The Tall Man.
I came into the franchise launched by today's film in entirely the wrong way. My best friend in high school rented one of the sequels--two or three, I forget--and we were completely baffled by the bonkers story, and I wrote the series off as absolutely batshit and didn't bother with the rest. A few years back, however, I decided to revisit the series with fresh, mature eyes and binged the first four installments in a single day. Honestly, streaming video-on-demand is one of humanity's greatest accomplishments, and you can fight me all you want if you have the balls. Speaking of balls, let's get right into today's movie, 1979's Phantasm.
As the film opens, we see two lovers having sex in Morningseide Cemetery. The man, Tommy, is fatally stabbed by his lover, who is actually the supernatural Tall Man (played by Angus Scrimm) in disguise. Days later, at Tommy's funeral, Mike watches the service from the trees, but he stays afterward to witness the mortician, the Tall Man, lift Tommy's casket singlehandedly and place it back in the hearse. Haunted by what he saw, Mike decides to investigate Morningside, despite his brother Jody's insistence that it's all in his head. While searching the mortuary, Mike is attacked by a murderous flying orb that kills one of the Tall Man's minions before Mike is chased away by the Tall Man himself and several small, hooded figures.
Mike severs the Tall Man's fingers and brings one to Jody as proof. Unable to deny the still-twitching finger soaked in yellow blood, Jody agrees to help Mike get to the bottom of the mystery and find out what happened to Tommy's body. Enlisting the the help of their friend Reggie, the local ice cream man, the brothers set out to get answers and to bring an end to the Tall Man's sinister operation.
Phantasm is an odd movie from beginning to end, seeming to blend classic gothic horror with zombies and even science fiction. Unfortunately, any answers Mike and the gang get in their quest only open things up for more questions. We know the Tall Man is shrinking corpses to make zombie dwarves, and Mike surmises they're slaves created to withstand the harsh conditions of the Tall Man's home planet... but... why? How do they serve him there? What's the purpose? And what's the deal with those weird, silver balls that zoom around the mortuary drilling holes in people's skulls? Some (not all) of these questions are answered in the sequels, but even that's problematic. The film's ending (and the subsequent film's endings) plays with the audience, implying everything we just witnessed was a dream. But was it? Is it just another illusion crafted by the Tall Man? My head hurts.
One thing I have to touch on briefly is this weird scene involving an elderly fortune teller and her mouthpiece granddaughter who assure Mike that his fears about Jody abandoning him are unfounded. The scene just really doesn't add anything to the story that we couldn't already glean from the brothers' interactions. Plus there's an odd sequence in which Mike is ordered to stick his hand inside a black box that causes severe pain while the granddaughter all but plagiarizes the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear. I know this movie at times feels a bit like an Alejandro Jodorowsky acid trip, but the Dune reference is a little on the nose, don't you think?
Let's talk about the visuals. One thing I love about Phantasm is it's simplistic style. From the yawning halls of Morningside to the Tall Man's white-walled gate room, to the crimson-skied wasteland the Tall Man calls home, this movie isn't cluttered. There's a lot of hard, stark contrast. I particularly love the gate room. Its utilitarian nature perfectly complements the Tall Man. This isn't a flashy villain. He has a mission, and nothing's going to stand in his way. Aside from providing obligatory T&A, I'm not sure why the Tall Man resorts to shapeshifting and seduction to lure in male victims. Oh well... I guess even murderous alien grave robbers need to get their kicks somehow.
There's a damn good chance that Phantasm, along with its four sequels, will leave you scratching your head, but at least the movie gives us a promise of mystery instead of feeling unfinished and disjointed like, oh... I don't know... Neon Maniacs! Regardless of its confusing twists and turns, it's worth a watch and gorgeous to look at. Plus the car, man! The car!!!