I will never forget the first time I saw Phantasm. How could I? It haunted me for years afterward. I was maybe seven or eight years old, surely no older than nine. My dad was watching it, probably on HBO, because I think it was the only movie channel we had back in the day. I dropped in at some point and he didn't kick me out because, well, my parents gave zero fucks what I watched. (Hey, it was the early '80s; I also didn't wear a seatbelt, much less a bike helmet.) Everything was fine until that evil silver ball showed up. Then nothing was ever the same again.
You might think I'm joking, but that fucking thing just ruined me for horror movies for years to come. I remember the crazy anxiety I felt as it pursued a kid through the eerie halls of the mortuary. When it found a target -- not the kid, thank god, or I might have just lost it right then and there -- and buried itself in his goddamn head, my anxiety evolved into full-blown terror. The damn thing was like the worst tools of the dentist attached to a mirror ball of pure malevolence. It drilled into its victim's forehead while he screamed and struggled. Fluids spewed everywhere! The dude's legs twitched! My eyes must have been like saucers, my mouth as dry as a bone.
That was it for me. No more Phantasm, thank you very much! I remember retreating to the laundry room, on the basis of it being far enough from the TV so I couldn't hear what was happening, but close enough that if the ball showed up my parents could hear me screaming for help. I stood in there, in awe and horror of what I had seen, reliving it in my mind's eye over and over again, until the movie was over.
That was the last horror movie I willingly watched for some time.
I didn't see the full movie until years later, as an adult. I remember feeling some of that same anxiety as I watched it, reliving the childhood trauma. Sure, the terror was eased by the passing of time, the confidence of adulthood and the scores of other horror movies I'd seen in the interim, but in some sense I was still that little kid cowering in the laundry room. And that made me very, very happy. You can go home again, as long as home makes you want to wet your pants and cry yourself to sleep.
The film itself, once I'd seen the whole damn thing, also made me pretty happy. It's gone on to become an acclaimed cult classic -- with four sequels, no less -- in the decades since my initial exposure, and for good reason. It's a smart, snappy piece of horror science fiction about an alien masquerading as a man and using his job as a funeral home director to make zombie slaves for his home planet. The effects are a little rough, but still effective. The same can be said about the acting. But the net effect is greater than the sum of its parts -- surreal and dreamlike, blurring the lines between the reality of the situation and the imagination of its adolescent protagonist. Thematically, it offers some interesting thoughts on how we deal with death, both in terms of the actions we take and the emotions we feel about it. Plus it has no fewer than three iconic horror monsters -- the alien Tall Man, the creepy dwarf zombies and that goddamn silver ball. Not bad for a movie shot with a largely amateur cast on a budget that would barely cover the craft service of most films.
This Sunday, you can see it yourself at Bloody Sunday at Buntport, and you definitely should. I can't say for sure whether you should bring your own kids, but I can say that, despite the psychic scars or perhaps because of them, I'm damn glad I got to experience it the way I did. Still, maybe make sure there's a comfortable space for them to lie down in the laundry room, just in case.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.
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