What, exactly, is the appeal of the so-called cult movie? Why do so many of us spend our time and money on these strange little films with no stars and low rent production qualities? What makes them them take up residence in our minds while so many sleek big budget blockbusters and acclaimed prestige pictures fade into memory so quickly? Well, this might sound a bit trite and obvious, but the easy answer is they're just different. Ironically, their low budgets are their greatest strengths. The smaller stakes afford the makers of these films greater freedom to experiment. They can mix genres, abandon traditional narratives, and take formal risks that their studio-bound contemporaries just aren't allowed to. One film that embodies this kind of freedom as well as any that I can think of is Don Coscarelli's "Phantasm".
Produced on a budget of $300,000, which Coscarelli raised through investments from his father (I wish my dad believed in my dreams that much) and various doctors and lawyers, and shot mostly on weekends over the course of a year, this was an independent film in the truest sense of the term. Coscarelli worked as his own cinematographer and editor. The practical effects can look a bit hokey, but they have a do-it-yourself charm to them that modern CGI will never replicate. The whole affair has a freewheeling, almost improvisatory quality to it that audiences probably wouldn't accept from a bigger budget movie. There's even a little musical interlude where two characters jam out a little ditty on their guitars, just 'cuz they can. And the plot blends horror and dream-logic with elements of science fiction, and even some 1970's car chase action movie vibes to create something truly unique.
It seems pointless to describe the story in any detail, since so few of the film's pleasures come from it's narrative. But the events concern some mysterious goings-on at a small town mortuary. Looking into this establishment are two brothers named Mike (Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), and their ice cream truck driving buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister). The funeral home itself is run by a mysterious figure known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who Mike sees lift a loaded casket all by himself after a funeral, which kind of sets everything in motion. He's aided in his evil dealings by a beautiful seductress known as The Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester), and an army of hooded dwarves who look an awful lot like the Jawas from Star Wars. Other characters who seem like they might be important disappear without a second thought. And then some pop up out of nowhere like we're supposed to know who they are. If all this sounds like it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, well you're right. But that's not a bug, it's a feature.
These days, this kind of film-as-dream is generally associated with the works of David Lynch. And there is one scene--the one where Mike visits The Fortuneteller who speaks only through her granddaughter--that feels like it would've been right at home in an episode of the original "Twin Peaks" series. But I think a better point of comparison for the uninitiated might be "A Nightmare on Elm Street". Many of this film's most memorable sequences employ the same kind of nightmare imagery that Wes Craven would employ five years later in his best film. The protagonist runs from the villain but can't seem to put any distance between them until he gets stuck in mud that has appeared out of nowhere. A finger is hacked off, spewing yellow blood, but continues to move around on it's own before turning into a giant bug, because why not? The Tall Man even feels like a prototype for Freddy Krueger in some ways. He torments children in their dreams, He gets to pop up out of nowhere and deliver one-liners like "you play a good game, boy, but the game is finished. Now you die!" And, of course, the immortal "boooy!" He sometimes manages to say these lines without even moving his own mouth. Not to mention his apparent shape-shifting abilities.
While all the genre-blending, narrative illogic, and somewhat hokey thrills are all great fun on their own, they don't add up to much without something tangible and relatable for a viewer to connect with. At it's core, this film is driven by thirteen-year-old Mike's anxiety about death and fear of abandonment. In more general terms, it's the feeling of powerlessness that we all experience at that age when we're not quite old enough to be in control of our own lives. For Mike, he's still processing the death of his parents and he worries Jody might leave him too. For you, it might've been that your family had money worries, or that your parents couldn't stop fighting, and you were afraid they might split up. But it's all the same kind of anxiety. Of course, in Mike's case, he also has to deal with a floating metal sphere that he sees bore a hole into a man's skull and suck out his brains.
This sounds counterintuitive to say about a horror movie, but I've never found "Phantasm" to be all that frightening. In fact, I find the viewing experience to be strangely relaxing. Instead of staying alert and keeping track of characters and story details, I just kind of luxuriate in the atmosphere created by the instinctual rhythms and haunting score. And how have I not mentioned that score yet? Composed by Fred Myrow and Michael Seagrave, it is frequently cited as one of the best horror movie themes of all time, and with good reason. It will surely remind anybody of John Carpenter's most memorable synthesizer soundscapes from that same era, or the music composed for Dario Argento's films by the band Goblin. But it'll worm it's way into your brain just the same.
"Phantasm" is a film that has risen considerably in my estimation over the years. I liked it immediately the first time I saw it. But I thought of it more as a silly-but-fun little curiosity that didn't add up to much. It seemed almost like a movie that worked by accident, not because of any brilliance on the part of it's makers. But, after multiple re-watches, many of the qualities that first seemed like weaknesses now appear to be some of it's greatest strengths. There's great craft in the editing in particular. This movie really flows. And the decision to never really explain itself is part of what makes it highly re-watchable. Even the end, which at first seemed tacked-on, is more ambiguous than it initially appears. Whatever flaws are left over seem insignificant in the shadow of it's many virtues. It's the ultimate low budget cult horror film. And it will live on long after whatever is playing at your local multiplex has disappeared into obscurity.