MOVIE: Phantasm (1979)

While chatting about bad horror movies in the comments of an earlier post, a reader (hi, Trip!) reminded me of this old classic. I hadn’t seen it since, oh, say 1987 or so? I feel like it was at a slumber party, and that a bunch of us got REALLY freaked out by it, because in my head, I had this one filed under “effectively scary.” In any case, I knew I had a copy of it somewhere on VHS (our local video store, an independent, has been unloading all its old VHS tapes the last year or two and frequently sells them for a buck a piece — I cannot resist) so I dug it up the other night and popped it in.

This movie is everything you would expect a horror flick from 1979 to be — and I have absolutely no idea what part of this I could’ve POSSIBLY found “effectively scary” in 1987. Rookie. Because this movie is just ridiculously hilarious — I was dyin’ through the whole damn thing. It’s the very epitome of good-bad awesomeness. This movie just totally has it ALL.

The story is set in a small town and opens with a VERY 70’s-looking guy having sex in a graveyard with a woman who has to be, in my opinion, one of the least attractive femmes fatales in cinematic history. Ah, yes, first scene involves nekkid boobies — did you even have to ask?

Anyway, of course, 70’s dude is promptly killed by said pseudo-seductress, and the next scene is his funeral. Attending is one of his close friends, a guy with extremely silly hair named Jody, and spying from the bushes is Mike, Jody’s little brother (Jody and Mike’s parents both recently died, so Jody is also Mike’s legal guardian). The funeral ends, but Mike hangs out with his binoculars for a little while so he can watch the cemetery worker lower the body (incidentally, as soon as I saw him, I dubbed the cemetery guy “Mr. If Chins Could Kill,” but it turns out his actual name is “The Tall Man” — nevertheless, that underbite is a sight to behold. If that’s a prosthetic doing that, I feel for the actor. . .) .

When Mr. If-Chins checks over both shoulders then hoists the casket with one hand and pops it back into the hearse, Mike is understandably shocked. But, being 13, he shrugs it off and heads for home. Later that night, the plot thickens when Jody picks up Ugly Seductress in a bar and, of course, Mike follows them both into the cemetery for, yes, more nekkid boobs.

Luckily, before Jody can be sliced and diced like his pal in Act 1, Mike is nearly attacked in the woods by what we later discover is an extra from the Star Wars set (a Jawa, to be more specific — my guess is they had a small budget for costumes and sets and blew half of it on Jody’s leather jacket and cool car, so they had to buy their alien monster duds half-price at the Star Wars tag sale). Mike comes running through the graveyard screaming, which coitus-interruptus-es Jody and Ugly Seductress. Close one, Jody!

In any case, this merely leads to increasing weirdness, including a severed finger that bleeds yellow goop for a while until it suddenly and dramatically turns into a huge, fake-looking fly that Jody and Mike are forced to kill using a garbage disposal (it’s a long, ludicrous story. . .). And then there’s the shiny metal ball that flies around the mortuary, puncturing passers-by in the head and sending their blood spurting out in extraordinarily prolonged and hilarious death scenes.

Eventually, Jody and Mike discover that Mr. If Chins Could Kill is the ringleader of a group of Jawas who have been stealing humans, crushing them to half size, sticking them in barrels, and then zapping them into an alternate universe where they serve as Jawa slaves. My favorite part of this plot twist is when Mike pokes his head into the alternate universe for five whole seconds, sees the human slaves being rolled out of their barrels, instantly figures out what the Jawas have been up to, and then emerges exclaiming, “They GOTTA crush ’em! Because of the gravity! And the heat!”

Oh, OF COURSE!

Wait, what?

Also never fully explained:

  • Why Mr. If Chins is so tall and so ridiculously strong. Is he an alien too? If so, how come he doesn’t have to worry about the effects of the “gravity and heat”?
  • Why 13 year-old Mike drives a car and nobody seems to find that odd
  • Why Jody and Mike have 80 gazillion guns in their house
  • Why Jody is best friends with a balding folk singer who drives an ice cream truck and is at least 15 years older than he is
  • Why Jody and Mike could hold the bug in the garbage disposal and only the bug was destroyed and not their hands too
  • What the hell that fortune teller scene was doing in this movie
  • About 79 other things I rolled my eyes at but did not bother to jot down

If you are looking for the perfect movie to watch with a large group of friends this Halloween — and your large group of friends were huge fans of MST:3K — this is, no doubt about it, THE movie you need to rent. I got about ten minutes in and was just DYING for a companion I could make witty retorts to.

The cat never laughs at any of my jokes.

Incidentally, coming soon to theaters near you, I kid you not: Phantasm V. And thanks, Trip, for the memories.

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre: Good-bad horror

Cast: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Kathy Lester, Angus Scrimm (is that not the most perfect real name for Mr. If Chins Could Kill imaginable? And holy crap, did you guys know he had a recurring role on Alias as SD-6 Agent McCullough? I can’t picture him — I’ll have to dig out my DVDs next week.)

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13 Responses to “MOVIE: Phantasm (1979)”

  1. Trip Says:

    AWESOME! This is now #1 in my Netflix queue, so I’ll have it for Halloween night. Now I have a chance at great comedy, plus my childhood demons associated with this flick will become as obsolete as Betamax and Member’s Only jackets. Score!

    I knew there was some bizarre sci-fi twist to this movie, LOL forgot it was the zapping of corpses to Jupiter. I mean, how much acid had to have been consumed for this idea to have been made into a major motion picture back then?!

    I do remember the bad leather jackets and the creative use of a shotgun shell as well. I can’t wait!

    The only thing missing from this movie to truly make this a complete 70’s movie is the presence of Jackie Earle Haley – that kid IS 1979. Period. He’s Moocher in Breaking Away. He’s also cast as Rorschach in the film version of Watchmen coming out next year!

    Bring on the next good-bad theme!

  2. megwood Says:

    Excellent point about Jackie Earle Haley. I still haven’t seen “Little Children,” but I remember being so surprised to hear his name again when that film came out (and that his name was being used in conjunction with high praise, even!). I didn’t know he was going to be in “Watchmen” — sweet!!

    Make sure you come back after you watch Phantasm and comment on anything hilarious I neglected to mention! Happy Halloween! 🙂

  3. Alisa Says:

    When I was a kid, I was not allowed to watch horror movies, so of course my first horror movie was Nightmare on Elm Street (at a slumber party) and that movie scared the living bleep out of me. I was scarred for life of course, and it was years before I saw my next horror movie, and that movie was Phantasms. So I was prepared be scared poopless and because of all the reason’s you just listed, I found the movie extremely funny. Now w/that being said I just watched Saw 111 and that movie scared the poop and every other bodily fluid out of me.

    On a different note….Meg, I’ve come to the conclusion that I think you and I will probably only be able to agree on books. I also saw The Dead Girl over the weekend and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way it flowed or how it ended. I felt like there should have been more. But on a good note, I also watched the 1st disk of Dexter w/my husband and we both love the show.

  4. » Comment on MOVIE: Phantasm (1979) by Trip Says:

    […] Original post by Trip […]

  5. Trip Says:

    Oh, Meg. OMG. I watched it. Wow. Now I totally understand the joy of good-bad horror. This was, without a doubt, the best bad horror movie ever.

    Where do I even begin?

    After watching this for about two minutes thirty seconds, I was compelled to pull out the laptop and just journal this thing in real-time.

    * Blue eye shadow has never been sexier. Gettin’ shanked ABBA style!
    * You never see the gnomes…until it’s too late
    * Laugh out loud funny: Tall Man slaps a meaty paw on Jody: “The funeral is about to begin…SIR!” Best use of cocked eye in a horror movie.
    * Who in their right mind rides a dirt bike in a cemetery?!
    * Michael bears a slight resemblance to Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.
    * Why is one man tossing a casket into a hearse creepy, but freakin’ Grandma’s house ISN’T?!
    * What is that on Grandma’s forehead? Was she in the Manson family?
    * Beautiful car, best thing in the whole movie. Badass big block 1971 ‘Cuda
    * This movie clearly influenced the style of Knight Rider
    * Put your hand in the box…OMG inspiration for Dune?! Fear is the mind killer! Michael = Muad’dib ??? I’m hooked now. What does all this even mean?
    * Nothing says “we rock” like jamming with your best bud in the Fleetwood Mac hat, with you in your ice cream truck uniform. “Hot as love”. Seriously, WTF was that scene about?
    * Breck girl overbite! Man, she is pretty fugly even for 1979.
    * Oh yeah, those are real.
    * If you hear something growling in the bushes while you’re sneaking around…why would you sneak TOWARDS it?!
    * Gopher in heat! LOL – great script
    * “Only the wind.” Cue wind noise.
    * Go ahead, 13-year old bro. Drive yourself home in my overpowered muscle car. Did this make sense to people on the set, even?! Did no one stop and say, uhhhh, wouldn’t happen?
    * There’s a lot of palm trees in Oregon, apparently.
    * Tall Man again. Takes a deep breath. Ooooh scary. Guess he grooves on the freezer smell.
    * Jody lets his kid brother work on the Cuda alone, with floor jack?! Paging CPS!
    * Easy access to Bowie knives apparently. Clearly no parental guidance here.
    * OK, it’s way dark. Maybe I should go break into the funeral parlor alone because it creeps me out and there’s growling demons in the F*ING BUSHES
    * WIG head! AHHHHHH – laugh out loud funny
    * WOW does this movie SUCK.
    * Is this a mausoleum or the Greek wing in the Louvre?
    * Silver ball FINALLY. Jet powered?
    * Twin forks for easy grip! Fast efficient drill action! With this sucking action, you’ll never need a straw!
    * Dat’s GOTTA hoit.
    * Cool! Post-chop twitchy finger! Let’s grab it! Why? I don’t know! Think I might get some use out of it for some reason
    * Would YOU be able to f*ing FALL ASLEEP with a moving finger in a box besides you? Me neither.
    * Pardon me sir, have you any Grey Poupon….for my FINGER?! Actually looks more like…blood of Velveeta
    * “OK. I believe you.” LOL nothing like a f*ing FINGER in a BOX to seal the deal!
    * Look Jody, you just saw a moving severed finger. I think a story about a tall creepy dude one-arming a casket into a hearse ain’t such a stretch NOW, right?
    * “I do know one thing. Something WEIRD is going on up there.” YA THINK?!
    * OMG the fly. This is too much. I’m dying here. Best horror movie – EVER.
    * Oh God this is a riot.
    * Hey guys, what’s up? LOL, oh my intercostals.
    * Here, 13-year old bro. Have the shotty fo’ reals. If that don’t work, we got these muskets over the fireplace.
    * “Warning shots are bullshit”…Words to live by.
    * GNOME ATTACK
    * Use the GAT, Jody!
    * Colt .45. The Gnome Stopper.
    * Better padlock it. Right.
    * Ice cream man = Powers Boothe’s less-talented brother?
    * Why do these white guys all talk like Black Panthers?
    * Antique shopping this late at night?
    * If this truck’s a rockin, it’s ’cause the gnome is knockin’!
    * OK, the lock was still in the hinge. So the gnome escaped, but carefully hung the bent lock BACK on?
    * GNOME ATTACK II. This time in the VW bug with standard Helpless Blonde Girls.

    At this point, my lovely GF walks in and just as the gnomes attack, she delivers the most perfectly-timed snark I’ve ever heard…”Land Shark”…referring to the classic SNL skit. It looks *just like that* on screen. I’m absolutely howling now.

    I stop the notes, temporary loss of motor control.

    None of it made a lick of sense, and still I was thoroughly entertained.
    106 minutes well spent.

  6. megwood Says:

    Oh man, HILARIOUS! Thank you for that brilliant play-by-play, Trip!

  7. Cheryl Says:

    does anyone remember the episode of “Buffy” where Zander brings home videos to get in the halloween spirit?

    “People, prepare to have your spines tingled and your gooses bumped by the terrifying… Fantasia. Fantasia? … Phantasm! It was supposed to be Phantasm!”

  8. megwood Says:

    Oh man, I forgot about that Buffy episode! AWESOME!

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  10. Ed Says:

    The town of Morningside (that it also the name of the town is shown in part 2 by the name of the clinic Mike gets treated at) is not in Oregon. In part 2, Reggie mentions going up to the state line after having followed the Tall Man’s trail northwest and East. I take that to mean that Morningside is in California probably.

  11. megwood Says:

    Actually, Trip was right about that. The original Phantasm (and several, if not all, of its sequels) was both filmed in AND set in Oregon.

  12. TC Says:

    Women…

    * Why Mr. If Chins is so tall and so ridiculously strong. Is he an alien too? If so, how come he doesn’t have to worry about the effects of the “gravity and heat”?

    You’ll have to watch the sequels. To make it short the body the Tall Man uses is borrowed.

    * Why 13 year-old Mike drives a car and nobody seems to find that odd

    I drove a car when I was 13. So did most of my friends. Its a rural thing.

    * Why Jody and Mike have 80 gazillion guns in their house

    Actually they had four. Two hunting rifles, a 45 Colt Handgun, and a Remington 870. I have twenty two firearms. Its a rural thing.

    * Why Jody is best friends with a balding folk singer who drives an ice cream truck and is at least 15 years older than he is

    My guess is that Reggie was selling more than ice cream. Didn’t you ever see Nice Dreams?

    * Why Jody and Mike could hold the bug in the garbage disposal and only the bug was destroyed and not their hands too

    Actually they stabbed it with a knife while it was in the disposal

    * What the hell that fortune teller scene was doing in this movie

    It added to the weirdness of the movie I think

    * About 79 other things I rolled my eyes at but did not bother to jot down

    Thats because the movie was told from the standpoint of grief stricken 13 year old having a nightmare. The entire movie was about loss and fear of abandonment

    Btw cool blog. I’ll subscribe.

  13. TC Says:

    Actually, Trip was right about that. The original Phantasm (and several, if not all, of its sequels) was both filmed in AND set in Oregon.

    Actually Trip is wrong. They were set in Oregon, but all were filmed in various locations in Southern California, with the exception of the Dunsmuir House in Oakland.

    There is a great site called Horrors Hallowed Grounds that has all the locations for all the fanboys like myself

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