26 September 2012

satan buys a leisure suit.

10. Phantasm (1978)

I will brook no dissent: the 1970s was by far the creepiest decade of the twentieth century. Almost everything committed to celluloid during those earth-toned, wash-and-go years seemed in danger of turning into a snuff film at the slightest provocation. Even films distributed by the major studios often had the grainy, grimy look of footage found in a dumpster behind the Days Inn off the interstate. Meanwhile, the increased prevalence of amateur filmmaking—coupled with the relative crudeness of the accompanying technologies—lent these pedestrian efforts a quality of eerie authenticity, more appropriate to the documentarian artifact than the polished narrative. 

But why limit ourselves to the cinematic realm for evidence of the decade's overall ickiness? From macramé owl wall hangings to butterfly shirt collars to the surprising popularity of the color 'rust'—the 1970s remade the whole world as a murky, cum-drenched, highly bacterial porn set. Shit-brown wall-to-wall carpeting and puke-green upholstery helped the average homemaker dissemble unsightly stains, resulting from discharged bodily fluids or other oozing contagions—while seemingly all the graceless luxury vehicles of the era traced their aesthetic ancestry to the hearse. As for fashions—the skin-tight sheaths of patterned synthetic-blends would probably survive a nuclear apocalypse, leaving the barren earth strewn with swaths of plaid rayon and pools of melted vinyl calf boots the color of rotting yams. 

So clearly any horror film made during the '70s has a leg up on the competition. That's just a fact. If you did a shot-for-shot remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre today, using all the modern technology and the crystalline digital photography, it would be completely castrated. (Sorry. I'm still thinking about I Spit on Your Grave for some reason.) It's the glossy, overprocessed quality of the contemporary horror film which has, in many ways, been its undoing. As we admire the production values and expensive artificiality of these films, we feel more and more alienated from them as a possible reality.

Phantasm exemplifies how a lo-fi '70s aesthetic can contribute to the pervasive eeriness of a film. Admittedly, the plot doesn't make a lot of sense. You've got an old, balding undertaker in a tight black suit and platform boots (known only as the Tall Man), some homicidal dwarves (who are indebted, sartorially speaking, to the Jawas), and—most famously—a little floating mirrorball that impales its victims and then drills a hole into their craniums, sending a fountain of blood through an excretory hole on its opposite hemisphere—for maximum showbiz effect, of course...

How this hodgepodge of disparate elements fits together into a single story about alien slave labor is beyond me—so I'm guessing that fussbudgets who demand internal consistency from their horror film mythologies will probably be very disappointed with Phantasm. If I were taking an essay test on the overarching rationale and the workaday specifics of the Tall Man's sinister plot, I think I would need to see a tutor pronto. Luckily, during much of Phantasm, I was too busy being creeped out to worry about what was actually happening. 

The film centers on the mysterious goings-on at the Morningside Funeral Home and its adjacent mausoleum. If you were unfortunate enough to visit a funeral home in the 1970s, then you know that this is the perfect intersection of time and place for a horror film setting... The heavy drapes, the dark woods, the chilly marbleized walls, the chalky-faced corpses—you can almost smell the cheap, gaudy floral arrangements from here, can't you? Only in the '70s could they find a flower the color of dried menstruation—and think it's pretty. In other words, a '70s funeral home is basically a nightmare factory waiting to happen. 

The main character of Phantasm is a pubescent boy named Mike (played by an 'actor' named Michael Baldwin). I was bothered by two things while watching this film: (1) the boy's ugliness—it's like taking an iron ingot to the eye—and (2) his resemblance to some other person, whom I couldn't quite place. After staring with great concentration at his repellent face through the first half of the movie, I had a sudden breakthrough when the Tall Man's severed finger turned into a giant furry insect and attacked his hair. ZOMG! He looks like Nellie Oleson! Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie!

Imagine my disappointment, while searching for photos of Mike, to discover that the likeness had already been remarked upon by another blogger years ago! 

Yeah, whatever. I made the observation independently...


  1. Ha! Nellie. What an ugly, horrible girl.

    By the way, I love your comparison of 70s automotive styling to that of a hearse. Brilliant!

    1. I hated Little House on the Praire SO MUCH as a kid. But OF COURSE my sister loved it.

      Didn't the whole town burn down at the end of the series or something?

      How glorious............

  2. This movie would have been ten times better, if Nellie Olsen had actually been in it. (no, the the actress who played Nellie, but if the Little House on the Prairie character had been written into the story... it certainly couldn't have made the story any less plausible)

    The whole plot- and I don't remember or never knew the specifics, but its about turning corpses on Earth into slaves on some other planet. The whole thing stinks of neocolonialism in the worst way.

    1. BUT the film demonizes the Tall Man's neocolonialism. That should please libertarian wackos across the globe!