You play a good game, boy, but the game is finished. Now you die.– The Tall Man
Given that it’s (almost) Friday the 13th, I considered going for the obvious choice for today’s Fright Festival entry, but instead I decided to go for something less cliché. Hence unlucky thirteen being 1979’s Phantasm.
The first time I watched Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, it was at the insistence of Derrick Ferguson. Derrick, knowing my love of horror films, was gobsmacked to learn that I’d never yet experienced the trippy delights of this particular film or its sequels. For weeks, Derrick would send me a daily email that consisted of but a single sentence – “Watched Phantasm yet?” – until at last I gave in and bought a copy.
As with so many things, Derrick was right. Phantasm is a good film, though I’ll be damned if I could explain why. It’s a film about death, about fear and dreams – all shrouded in a garishly surreal patina of cosmic horror. There are so many odd notes and out of place elements – seriously, what’s up with that fortune-teller? – that one is left with the sensation that one has stumbled onto a story in media res. Why is the Tall Man turning corpses into demented dwarves? What are the spheres? What’s the deal with that portal? So many questions, but precious few answers.
The biggest questions, of course, regard the nature of the film’s antagonist. Angus Scrimm’s abominable Tall Man is, for my money, a more subtly terrifying figure than any of his contemporaries in the horror genre. It’s not just that he’s a monster – it’s that what sort of monster he is, is never fully explained. He does terrible things, but we don’t know why or how. We don’t know where he came from or what his purpose is.
The Tall Man is that rarest of cinematic monsters – something utterly and repulsively alien, an impossible thing, intruding on our reality for reasons that are never articulated. The only thing that is clear about him is the malice which drives him – a malice made all the more terrible for its inexplicability. What is the Tall Man and why does he hate us so much?
I’m told there are answers to some of these questions in the sequels, but as I haven’t seen them yet, I can’t say.
I don’t honestly know that I want answers.