Sunday, November 1, 2009

More Halloween Nostalgia (Even If A Day Late): Phantasm

(I realize that Halloween is over but after the nostalgia trip generated by this post, I thought I'd post this similar story. This is a movie review I wrote for a previous job's internal company-wide website probably six years ago [2003]. I'm not going to edit it much as I'm glad that I for once put down in writing this little bit of 1970s nostalgia.)

Glenn’s Movie Pick for October 2003: Phantasm(1979)
Directed by Don Coscarelli, starring A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, and Angus Scrimm

In honor of Halloween I thought I’d review what I consider to be the scariest movie ever made but I realize that fear is subjective, and maybe not everyone considers The Sound of Music as terrifying as I do; I don’t know about those people, but I do know that the sight of singing nuns in the Austrian mountains sends me running in fear. And don’t even mention those kids and all that lederhosen to me.

So I think maybe I should do something more typically scary, more of a traditional horror movie? I decided on Phantasm(1979). And I can’t talk about Phantasm without talking about the first time I saw the film.

It was 1979, I was 12, and my parents and I were living in Louisiana, in the suburbs outside New Orleans. The big deal that year was that my parents’ friends, the O’Neills, had just gotten cable TV - - they lived in a slightly more modern subdivision - - and after much pleading, my mom finally allowed me to go over there one Friday night to watch Phantasm on HBO during that Halloween season.

Not only was the movie less than a year old, but it was rated R! I was living it up. This was going to be great. I was hyped in advance all week.

That Friday I went over there to watch it along with two of the O’Neill kids, Mike O’Neill, 15, wannabe bad-ass, and Kevin O’Neill, 17, honor student, along with their father who had always reminded me of a wiry Jack Lemmon for some reason (like in the original The Out-Of-Towners maybe).

I suppose a little background is in order here. I grew up an only child in an apartment and was pretty sheltered. I loved monster movies and watched them on TV every week - - "Creature Feature" on local Channel 20 was my favorite. I liked going to the O’Neills’ house because it meant I could hang out with Mike O’Neill. He liked monster movies too and, like me, made his own Super 8 film productions. My home movies tended to be herky-jerky stop motion animation filmed in the basement - - usually clay dinosaurs fighting a la Ray Harryhausen while Mike’s films were more elaborate - - he would cast the neighborhood kids as Frankenstein and his monster and have some physical action as well, use his backyard as the set, have fight scenes - - the whole works.

And it seems like every time I went to their house Mike and I would usually go in his backyard and burn model airplanes he had completed that week. I can still smell the glue in the air. Sometimes he would film them for use in some future epic he planned to produce but usually he would just go get whatever World War II fighter plane model kit he had just completed, douse it in lighter fluid and toss it airborne. Invariably the evening ended with wiry little Mr. O’Neill coming out, beer-in-hand, to yell "Goddammit! I told you to stop burning those models out here! You’re gonna catch the garage on fire!" and us frantically stamping out the pieces of the charred plastic in the flower bed.

I think Mike had a problem with fire - - my mom got a call from Mrs. O’Neill once that he was rushed to the hospital for third-degree burns because he got the bright idea to put lighter fluid on the soles of his sneakers, set them alight and then stomp out the flames up-and-down the sidewalk in front of his house. Great plan, but unfortunately, two stomps in, and the flames rushed up his pants and burnt his legs up to his knees.

So, as a 12-year-old, I’m anxious to go hang with this guy on Halloween. And Phantasm was the perfect film to watch on Halloween with Mike O’Neill. It’s a cheesy film, looks so low-budget that it looked like something Mike had filmed himself, and it was gory too.

It concerns two orphaned brothers who live near a mausoleum and notice a strange Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the mortician, doing some weird things with bodies. The younger, more reckless brother investigates and finds that the Tall Man is really an alien and is transporting the bodies from the cemetery to his home planet to use as slave labor. And the Tall Man ships the bodies home through this "dimensional gateway" he’s got set up in the morgue - - like something out of TV’s "Star Trek". I’m not making this plot up, people. Wild stuff, but pretty creative for a film that cost less than $300,000 to make and grossed millions more. If anyone investigates the Tall Man’s sinister doings they get chased around the mausoleum by this flying silver ball the size of a softball that proceeds to impale people in the middle of the forehead and pump out their blood.

Mike and I had read about this part and were waiting for the gore. This is before all the Eighties slasher movies when the only really shocking horror films had been Halloween, The Exorcist, and The Night of the Living Dead. All I can remember now is that Phantasm scared the crap out of me and that I had to turn away the first time the orb appeared and proceeded to pump out what seemed like gallons of blood from some poor character in the film. Needless to say I couldn't sleep that night but also couldn't wait to tell everyone in 7th Grade about this awesome R-rated movie I had seen when I got to school on Monday morning. It was better than the junky action movies I had seen at the drive-in theater as a little kid.

The director followed this film up with the 1982 masterpiece, The Beastmaster, with Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, and John Amos.

And Mike O’Neill, the fire-starter?

He ended up Sheriff of that small town in Louisiana.