This past weekend I attended a mini film festival at my friend Graham Skipper’s abode. He showed numerous cult horror films. Many of which are deserving of a wider appreciation.
One of the films that Graham chose to show was Phantasm II. Previous to last weekend I was aware of the Phantasm franchise but had never delved too deeply into it. I’m not sure why. They always looked right up my alley, but circumstances never brought us together, I suppose.
You know how it is. You see a DVD box from across a crowded video rental store or a poster J-peg on a legal, or maybe not so legal, streaming site, and you say to yourself, “Self, I’m going to fucking watch that movie. That looks right up my alley.” But inevitable an avalanche of diversions, cult classics, and trips to the local comic book store eat up your time.
Needless to say, after the first few frames of Phantasm II, I was hooked. Phantasm is my new favorite horror franchise. From the atmosphere to the grit of the initial entry to the low budget charm of the later installments, Phantasm is the horror franchise that I’ve been waiting years to discover.
I also had the unique experience of watching the out of order, which made things extra creepy cause I didn’t really know what was happening at times. I consumed the Phantasm movies in this order:
I’m not sure why I didn’t go back and watch the initial entry that sparked the franchise first, before immediately going on to the third film, but I did. I couldn’t help myself. One of the most interesting parts of the Phantasm films are the endings. The films are structured more like old serials. They’re episodes in a television show. You just have to wait a decade in-between installments. It’s both maddening and exhilarating. The ending of part 3 is particularly wonderful.
The face of the franchise is Angus Scrimm aka The Tall Man and he is one of the most interesting performers I’ve seen in a long time. I know I’m about forty years late to the game but he really is delightful in the part of the unnamed inter-dimensional grave thief. There’s an understatedness to his at times campy delivery that I find mesmerizing. I realize that’s a contradiction, but it’s true. He straddles that line very well.
The real person to discuss when waxing romantic about the virtues of Phantasm is writer/director Don Coscarelli. The man’s imagination and storytelling prowess are on display at every turn. It’s quite inspiring.
The Phantasm series is the perfect example of a franchise that is both intellectually stimulating, visually exciting, and, at times, shit your pants scary. It’s the perfect cocktail of fun, scares, gore, and action.
The Phantasm series needs a new installment. It needs a fifth, and probably final, entry. I desperately want to see Reggie, Mike, Jody, and the Tall Man on screen one final time. Phantasm: OblIVion is great, I really love that movie, but it’s not how the franchise should go out. It’s been fifteen years since the last direct to video installment was released. The franchise has a rapid fan base and is in perfect position for a comeback.
I’ve been thinking about horror movies a lot lately. Slashers, in particular. I’m a huge slasher fan. Slasher film serve as a beautiful microcosm for the time they were made in. I would submit to you, that you can learn more about 1970’s suburban entitlement from Halloween than you can from a text book. I’d also offer that Hellraiser has a hell of a lot to say about how people in the 80’s viewed sex. The same can be said for almost any slasher film. When a horror film works, it’s because it’s scary. That seems a trifle self-evident, but it runs deeper than things that go bump in the night. What scares us is a direct conduit for how we’re doing as a society. Horror film are, in a way, a cultural thermometer.
Couch Wall. The ultimate in home defense.
In my most recent round of revisiting/rediscovering/just straight up discovering slasher films I’ve noticed something that hadn’t really appeared to me before. The Survivor Girl. She’s the object of everyone’s attention in these films. Going further along that line of logic, she’s usually the object of a male’s obsession. She’s usually weak and then grows to become strong due to the attention of a male. It’s a strange concept that in a genre so associated with powerful female characters, none of them become truly powerful. Nancy never reaches Freddy’s level. I suppose that’s not precisely a fair statement to make because how would she still be relatable if she was a dream master demi-god. But even so. Survivor Girls are, almost without exception, a fetishized idea. They’re constantly being bombarded and they somehow make it through all these trials and tribulations without any real growth.
Let me be clear, I wouldn’t be saying any of this if Nancy had evolved into a Sarah Connor style character. Or if Laurie Strode had gone on to enroll in the Ellen Ripley School for Performing Ass-beaters. Shit if Sally from Texas Chainsaw had gone back to Leatherface’s house and fucked shit up, I’d have loved that. But that’s not the way American wants its women, I suppose. We want them just tough enough to be a challenge to woo, and then just meek enough to never leave. That’s what the Survivor Girl synecdoche says to me.
I’ve heard so many comic book and horror movie fans laude the Survivor Girl trope as something positive that the Slasher genre has given society. Positive female role model, and all that nonsense. But look at the name. SURVIVOR GIRL. Not Awesome Protagonist Woman or Totally Gonna Take Care Of Myself And Not Be Defined By Someone Else Adult Female. It’s inherently stunting. It’s basically Congrats, You Were The One Plot Gods Decided Not To Rape To Death Girl.
All this has to be taken with a grain of salt, I suppose. Nancy Thompson is one of my favorite fictional characters. I suppose these grievances are levied at franchise filmmaking. I understand needing to have an arc. I’m not an idiot. I get that you start someone off in a place of weakness and then, through the events that they endure, they become a stronger person. I suppose the issue for me is just that. Franchise horror films, particularly slasher films, never allow there female protagonists to progress beyond slightly-above-average-girl. I cannot think of a single Ripely or Sarah Connor style character in the slasher genre. It’s really a shame, too. Because there was so much potential in characters like Nancy or Alice Johnson from Nightmare on Elmstreet 3, 4, and 5. It’s really too bad.
The only way to fix this problem is to create. I know it sounds lame or corny or old hat, but it would seem to be true. In today’s remake/adaptation/recycling film economy, it would seem abundantly clear that the only way to progress, both as a genre and as a society, is to start telling new stories. To acknowledge the trends of the past, embrace them when applicable and buck them when reprehensible. Case and point: Survivor Girls. They need to go. We need something new. Something that mirrors the complexity of the modern day woman and can serve an inspiration to both genders.