The deaths of several of the townspeople prompt Mike and his friends to investigate the local mortuary, where they discover that a mysterious grave robber has been transforming the bodies of the deceased into his own interplanetary slaves! Don Coscarelli's cult-classic, PHANTASM, is unlike anything else the genre has ever seen, and presents a nightmarish dreamscape that can often be difficult to follow. Of the many varying themes and possibilities within the film, however, one theory seems to stand out the strongest. PHANTASM can most easily be read as an allegory for Mike's budding homosexuality, which he deeply fears and attempts to escape. Coscarelli leaves us with many distinct visual and audio clues in this regard, as evidenced throughout the entire film.
PHANTASM opens with Tommy being seduced by the Lady in Lavender, who is then revealed to be the Tall Man in disguise. As Tommy is killed during his sexual indiscretion in the graveyard, we are shown the level of intolerance that this small town has for its homosexual inhabitants. We cut to Mike, his brother Jody, and their family friend Reggie, who are attending Tommy's funeral at the Morningside Cemetery. Fearful of how Mike may react, he is asked by his brother to stay back, but as he watches the proceedings from a distance, he is haunted by a strange evil surrounding him in the cemetery. The seed is planted in his mind: Tommy's homosexual acts were punishable by death. Were the film released two years later, this might also have been seen as a subliminal linking between homosexuality and AIDS. As the funeral draws to a close, Mike's fears materialize in to a large, phallic representation of Death: The Tall Man. What better villain could be found but a tall, stern man with a bowl-shaped haircut that throws deadly steel balls at his victims' faces?
After leaving the cemetery, Mike seeks answers from a local psychic. He explains the strange happenings that occurred, and the fear he exhibited when confronted with the specter of Death. Mike is instructed to place his hand within a black box, but when he does, he is seemingly attacked by the physical manifestation of his fears following Tommy's death. Mike is then told to release his fear, the only thing that is keeping him trapped, which allows him to remove his hand, unharmed. This bit of enlightenment is quickly forgotten, but will play an intricate role in his self discovery later in the plot.
We next find Mike following his brother Jody from the bar accompanied by the Lady in Lavender. Mike is still deeply confused and conflicted by his feelings, which brings him back to the cemetery to watch as Jody and the Lady become intimate. It is only then that Mike realizes the Lady is no lady at all, but the Tall Man, and that Jody, too, has given in to his secret desires. Linking homosexuality with death, Mike runs screaming from the cemetery, which sends Jody hurling after him. Jody attempts to comfort Mike and reassure him, but Mike's unnatural fears of death prompt them both to return to the cemetery to confront "The Tall Man."
Each time that Mike or Jody grows closer to opening the secret door in the mortuary, the door which will unlock their "true" inner selves, they are hunted down by the Tall Man and sent fleeing in to the night. They discover that they are not alone, however, and that even their parents had fallen victim to this "otherworldly invader." At this point, Reggie has also become entangled in the mystery, joining Mike and Jody in their endeavors. It is Reggie who proposes that the group destroys the Tall Man in order to defeat Death. In a final act of defiance, the group finally casts their fears aside and enter the last room in the mortuary, where they discover that the people they had feared dead have only been transformed, reborn.
With this realization in mind, Mike, Jody, and Reggie now have the power to stop the Tall Man. No longer will they live in fear or be oppressed by an unaccepting society. They devise a plan, and bury the Tall Man in an empty mine shaft, forever riding themselves of his evil presence.
It is only then that Mike awakens beside a warm fire, lying next to Reggie. Reggie attempts to calm him, saying "Mike, you had a bad dream. I know you're scared, but you're not alone. I'll take care of you. I know I can't ever take Jody's place, but I'm sure as hell going to try." Reggie then holds him in a tight, loving embrace, and the two settle down by the fire. As it turns out, Jody had been killed in a "car wreck" weeks before, which sparked Mike's fear of death. In the final closing shot, however, we find that Mike still harbors the fear within his heart, as the Tall Man returns to claim him once more!
A stretch? An exaggerated overstatement of Freudian fluff? Think what you will about this potential reading, but it is no more invalid than any other interpretation of this strangely confusing film. Whether it be a dream, a fantasy, or a nightmarish reality, PHANTASM's non-linear design is uneasy to follow. Don Coscarelli deserves all due credit for writing, directing, producing, and editing one of the most unique and unusual independent Science Fiction and Horror stories within the genre, but PHANTASM is a difficult and often taxing watch. The pacing suffers due to the repetitive plotting and frequent inaction, but what Coscarelli does best is create a series of scares that have become iconic over the decades. Angus Scrimm is unforgettable in the role of the Tall Man, taking what few lines he has been given to terrify audiences the world over. In spite of their flaws, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, and Reggie Bannister are each enjoyable as Mike, Jody, and Reggie. The sheer inventiveness in design and special effects can never be overlooked, either. Regardless of one's subjective feelings towards the film, it must be revered as a Horror classic for its lasting impact on the genre. And a daring one that is filled with latent homosexuality, at that.
Movies like PHANTASM:
NIGHT WARNING, THE LADY IN WHITE, THE BEYOND, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
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