phantasm saga

Phantasm was released a year before Friday the 13th, predating the 80’s horror craze.  Unlike Friday the 13th and all its demented children,
Phantasm is not your typical slasher film.  Like Alien (also released in  1979), Phantasm took its cues from monster movies and added a modern
sci-fi twist.

The story of Phantasm belongs to two brothers whose parents died a few years ago.  The younger of the brothers, Mike, discovers weird happenings at the local cemetery – the tall man who runs the mortuary is able to lift a body-filled casket without the slightest effort.  Mike’s older brother, Jody, and Jody’s buddy Reggie (who operates an ice cream truck) don’t believe Mike at first but soon see for themselves that all is not right where the bodies are buried.

Or are the bodies buried?

Phantasm is a low-budget movie that really, truly benefits from the lack of polish.  If this had been shot on 70mm film stock with state of the art effects, we’d be forever reminded that we were watching A Movie.  Instead, Phantasm feels more like the modern faux documentary horror films Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity – two low-budget horror movies that scared the pee out of today’s audiences.

What effects there are come off pretty darn well.  The flying silver ball is scary even before we find out its purpose.  And when Mike gets a glimpse of what the Tall Man has been doing with all those bodies, the shock is genuine.  I never could have imagined the story would go where it did.

If Phantasm is like Alien, then its sequel has much in common with Aliens.  Phantasm is the low-budget, quiet, spooky introduction of the boogeyman.  Phantasm 2 (1988) is chummy, explosive, bigger.  It reduces the myth that the first movie built up so effectively.

Phantasm 2 uses a different actor for the part of Mike.  Was A. Michael Baldwin really that busy?  His IMDB credits say no.  He was fine in Phantasm, and fortunately he returns for parts 3 and 4.

There is more gore in 2, more exposition, more uses for those mysterious silver spheres.  Phantasm 2 kind of makes me wonder why a sequel was even made.  If taken as a stand-alone it makes Phantasm that much more original and scary.

I’m not totally down on Phantasm 2.  The Tall Man does not spout cheesy one-liners, there are more unexpected deaths, and the setting remains (as in part 1) in Oregon.  Also, Reggie and Mike get a sweet black HemiCuda to drive around in.  Did I mention this movie was a product of the 80’s?

This brings up a larger point about horror movies and endless sequels – I don’t think those franchises (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween) are even supposed to be frightening.  People see them for other reasons.  They begin rooting for the boogeyman instead of the hapless victims.  Does that negate the scariness of the originals?  I hope not.

In fact, I will find out.  I’m set to watch Phantasm 3 and 4 next (thank you Netflix Instant Watch!), so I’ll let you know.

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