Phantasm, Wu-Tang, and the Power of Suggestion

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is a conundrum. It makes an immediate impression of amateurism, mostly thanks to the naïve style of the untrained actors. That’s reinforced, as the film progresses, by the seemingly random progression of unexplained, though effectively ominous events – a murder in a graveyard, a funeral overseen by a menacing mortician, a sightless medium inexplicably speaking through her apparently psychic (and affectless) teenage granddaughter.

A seasoned aficionado of the weird will, by the middle of Phantasm, feel pretty sure that they’re seeing something like an inferior American version of Suspiria, complete with unexplained murders and mounting signs of a conspiracy, motivations just barely hinted at. Unfortunately, Coscarelli doesn’t have anything like Argento’s visual flair (or that amazing Goblin soundtrack – though Phantasm’s theme weakly echoes Suspiria’s), and the movie’s long setup comes dangerously close to flatness.

But what Coscarelli lacks in painterly excess, he quickly makes up for with a sense of the bizarre that dwarfs Argento’s. Suspiria is memorable for how it looks – Phantasm is memorable for its utterly uncanny events. Argento’s witches would certainly fall into Lovecraft’s category of “old,” unscientific horrors, alongside werewolves and vampires. But the relentless, cosmically inscrutable force at the center of Phantasm – the Tall Man, with his army of horrific dwarves – defies both tradition and categorization, and is all the more menacing because it occupies an apparently human body.

It all comes together in one moment of sublimely realized cosmic horror that holds the movie’s dream-logic together. The young protagonist, in pursuit of the Tall Man, slips through a dimensional portal and glimpses the corpse-dwarves at some utterly opaque form of slave labor, on the surface of a resolutely alien world. The place is desolate – nothing but an expanse of rock all the way to the horizon – and with a red, fiery sky. In the next instant, Mike is snatched back through the portal, and we never see the place again.

It is a total shift in visual tone from the muted aura of the rest of the film. And while the effect of the planet’s surface itself is not exceptionally refined, the fact that we only see it for a matter of seconds leaves it to resonate in our heads, not just for the rest of the movie, but (if you’re of a certain morbid cast) long after.

The moment reminds me, in a strange, oblique way, of the 2000 Wu-Tang Clan track “Careful.” Despite the weirdly blingy video, the track is totally haunting, slow, and sparse. It came out a year after RZA did the transformational “Ghost Dog” soundtrack, and could easily be an outtake.

EXCEPT.

At about the 3:40 mark, as the song is about to end, RZA drops a horn sample that transforms the entire song. It’s a three-note traditional soul/funk hook. It’s beautiful, funky, rich. It gives heart to a track that’s ice cold – but instead of using it to climax the song, or under the hook, RZA laces it in all the way at the end of the song, twice – and then returns to the bare-bones original beat.

It’s a stunning bit of artistic restraint. Every time you remember the song, the loop floats over the whole thing, not just the last few seconds. Every time you listen to the song after that, the loop haunts it.

You’re waiting for it. It hangs on in its own absence.

It’s a strong parallel to Coscarelli’s gesture in Phantasm, and to the brief flashes of revelatory truth that define almost all works of weird horror. The glimpse of the alien planet looks like it might be an explanation of the inexplicable, a source of order, if not security, in the face of seemingly random terror. Coscarelli does offer some logic – but just the barest wisp, ultimately just a further tease to enrich the wanderings of our own brains.

Phantasm is not by any means as rich a mine of illogic as, say, Inland Empire, or El Topo, or Trash Humpers. It’s structured as a traditional horror movie, with a villain, and a hero who overcomes it (at least temporarily). But the nature of that monster – scientific rather than supernatural, and yet at the same time totally inexplicable – makes it an inspiring manifestation of the weird by a determined auteur working without much money, but with a fierce dedication to his own singular ideas.

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