There’s a handful of movies that have stuck with me clear back since I was an annoying asthmatic kid with one too many make-believe friends. Star Wars, The Exorcist, The Fog, The Shining, Dawn of the Dead, and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. These were movies that had a real impact on me. It was never comedies or kids fantasy flicks that left an impression. It was horror films. And most of these I saw edited and on network television and they still scared(scarred) the hell out of me. Dawn of the Dead I was lucky enough to see for the first time uncut on Betamax, and Star Wars I saw in the theater at the age of 4. But the rest of those movies were network TV specials. There was a time, before we had a VCR(or B.V.C.R., aka Before Video Cassette Recorder) that the only movies I’d see were what was shown on network TV. There was also a few channels that were local, non-network affiliated stations that pretty much played whatever they wanted. Channel 55 WFFT out of Fort Wayne had Nightmare Theater on Friday nights. That’s where I saw a great mix of B-movie horror junk, 70s low budget monster flicks, and even some classics like Karloff’s Frankenstein and Lugosi’s Dracula. Between listening to Metal Shop on 95.3 WAOR and flipping back and forth between Late Night with David Letterman and Nightmare Theater, my Friday late nights were set.
Occasionally though, those local network affiliates would play some crazy movies after the network stuff was done. Late one night after the local news on Channel 22 WSBT out of South Bend, Indiana the late, late show was the movie Phantasm. It was already 11:30 pm when it started, and the only two people up were my dad and I. This had to have been 1980 or 1981. Anyways, I was 7 or 8 years old at the most, and I’d never heard of this movie. I’m not sure if my dad had or not. In fact, I don’t even know why he let me stay up to watch it. Having suffered from nightmares for over a week after seeing The Food of the Gods at the drive-in I’m surprised dad would’ve taken the chance of me waking him and mom up every night for another whole week. Regardless, he and I stayed up and watched the whole thing. It was creepy without being scary. It was disturbing, but not over-the-top gross. If you’re not familiar with the movie, here’s a quick synopsis:
Following the death of his parents, 24-year-old musician Jody Pearson raises his 13-year-old brother Mike in a small town disturbed by the mysterious deaths of its citizens. Reggie, a family man and ice cream vendor, joins the brothers in their suspicions that the local mortician, dubbed the Tall Man, is responsible for the deaths.
So the brothers and their ponytail-wearing ice cream man family friend Reggie suspect strange things are afoot at the local funeral home. The Tall Man is taking the dead locals and turning them into cloaked midget zombies that are doing his bidding. There’s some strange room that seems to go into another dimension between these chrome bars within the funeral home. It also seems to be where the dead locals are squished down to Jawa-size. There’s also these flying chrome balls that like to fly around the funeral home looking for folks that don’t belong. Once they find said intruders the chrome balls attach themselves to the unlucky bastards with a pair of forks that come out of the sphere, then when they’re good and attached to the head of the victim, a nice sized drill bit comes out and lobotomizes the schmuck, with lots and lots of blood spraying everywhere.
It’s pretty great stuff.
The movie ended on an ambivalent and eerie note, which while it didn’t terrify me I wasn’t quite ready to go to my dark bedroom to sleep afterwards. I slept on the couch. I can remember my dad laughing at the creepy ending. He did that a lot. Laugh at what would frighten, horrify, or gross out mere mortals. It got worse when we finally got a VCR. He would rewind scenes were someone’s head got blown off and he’d replay it over and over, cackling for five minutes(this is a habit he handed down to me.) But that night with Phantasm, it was just a good chuckle and a “You need to go to bed.”
So that Don Coscarelli cult classic stayed in my head all those years. Even after watching other classics like Devil Dog: The Hound From Hell starring Richard Crenna and Magic starring Anthony Hopkins as a psychotic puppeteer, nothing was as creepy and memorable as Phantasm. As I’ve gotten older I’ve revisited these horror movies, and most of them have stood the test of time for me. What they may lack in modern effects they make up in creativity, low budget finesse, and great writing. And as I’ve started collecting vinyl I’m revisiting these movie’s soundtracks. I never realized just how pivotal these scores were to how well the movies worked. Phantasm is no different. In fact, I’d completely forgotten just how well the score works. Written and performed by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, they hit all the right notes(no pun intended.) It’s filled with analog synth, mellotron clavinet, organ, and acoustic piano. There’s even some faux disco(“Phantasmagoria/Silver Sphere Disco”) that works pretty well for the time. But really, their score works to make all the dark corners and underlying fear of death all the more creepy and mournful. What Phantasm does is get at our primordial fear of death. And not only that, but the idea that once we die we don’t rest in peace. That sanctity of everlasting peace is violated by some tall, creepy guy with a pageboy haircut that turns our dead bodies into dwarf zombie slaves.
Ain’t that a bitch?
Coscarelli does this thing, much like what Romero did in Dawn of the Dead, where he takes something familiar and comforting and turns it on its head. In DotD it was the mall. A place where we all gather and feel comfort in the mundane world of commerce and consumerism. Even in death we want to shop till we drop….literally. In Phantasm it’s the funeral parlor. A place where loved ones gather to pay their respects for the dead. Except, once those loved ones leave with sopping hankies and fading memories, any respect that existed is sent to the crematorium and grandma is turned into a cloaked mini ghoul. He does great things with light and shadow in this film, and the entire film almost feels like some dream-like hallucination. Like a dream a Fellini character may have after some quaaludes and 6-pack of Mickey’s.
It came to my attention that the soundtrack for Phantasm was being reissued by Mondo out of Austin, TX. A great company that does justice to some of the best movie scores you’ve heard and never heard. As soon as it was up for purchase I snagged a copy and it arrived in the mail toot sweet. Lovely gatefold sleeve with new, original artwork by Phantom City Creative and great liner notes from Don Coscarelli himself. The vinyl is 180 grams with red and black swirl.
I’m pretty much geeking out right about now.
So after all these years this cult classic still holds up in my eyes and ears. I recently watched the movie again and all the eeriness is still there. All those feelings I had as a little kid watching it returned as I watched it late one night after everyone went to bed. And dammit if that score doesn’t make me get all nostalgic. When I’d told my dad that I’d watched it again, he said to me, “I remember how shocking it was. And it was the first movie I’d ever seen that showed full-frontal male nudity.”
What the hell????
I’m not sure what movie my dad is talking about, but it sure as hell wasn’t Phantasm. He might be confusing this for Videodrome. Or porn.
Either way, if you’ve never seen it you really should. It’s a classic of the genre. And if you have I’d say you need to get this soundtrack. You don’t remember just how incredible of a score it is.