There have been many horror films about nightmares, including one popular franchise starring a guy with a red and green striped sweater, but they all have one thing in common: they clearly announce their intent in their titles. The scariest thing about an actual nightmare is not being able to tell the difference between the dream world and waking life. In that respect, Phantasm stands tall amongst its nightmare movie brethren, and not just because it stars six-foot-four actor Angus Scrimm.
If I had seen Phantasm in 1979, no doubt it would have traumatized me. As a kid who suffered from insomnia, nightmares, and panic attacks, the iconic visuals in the film feed into the typical but frequently debilitating fears of the easily spooked: death, cemeteries, funerals, things under the bad, masked creatures, and of course, the imposing and mysterious Tall Man. Since the main protagonist of the film is a 13-year-old kid, it only makes the creeping terror of Phantasm’s narrative more frightening.
Many classic tales are based on the simple idea that no one believes the protagonist; no one will entertain the possibility that the things he or she insists are happening have actually happened or are even real. While this trope is often utilized with women in horror films—with Let’s Scare Jessica To Death and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark being my two favorite examples—there are many examples of fiction when this lack of belief from others plagues a child, such as The Wizard of Oz.
In Phantasm, Mike’s parents were killed two years ago, and his older brother Jody wants to protect him. When Jody attends the funeral of his friend Tommy, he warns Mike to stay home lest it freak him out too much. Mike doesn’t listen and this sets some of the events of the film in motion. As things get more and more dangerous, Jody continually tells Mike to stay home, stay safe, stay away from the danger, but Mike always finds a way.
In the beginning of Phantasm, Mike visits a psychic and expresses concern that Jody is leaving. The film then cuts to a shot of Jody’s car driving down the street. It pulls into a driveway and Mike and Jody get out and while Mike works on the engine, Jody tells his friend Toby that he’s unsettled by the way Mike is always following him around. The movie cuts away from this conversation to show an example of this, and by not changing the visual style of the film or cutting back to Jody having the conversation, it’s difficult at first to know whether this image is a flashback or happening in the present, especially when this is followed up by a continuation of Mike talking to the psychic. Director Don Coscarelli does this frequently throughout Phantasm, using dialogue as a kind of sound bridge between scenes to indicate the fluid nature of reality.
It’s true that Mike always seems to be present no matter where Jody goes: when Jody is riding his bike, when Jody is at a local watering hole hitting on a woman, when Jody is having sex with the woman a few minutes later. This is much like the way that we are omniscient in dreams, bearing witness to the activities of others in situations when were not physically present.
There are a few instances where Mike does something and then Jody does the exact same thing, or vice versa. Mike breaks into the funeral home to find more about the Tall Man, when he is attacked by the dwarves. Later, Jody does the same thing, using the same window to enter the building, and is also attacked. When Reggie takes Mike to Sally’s house for safekeeping, Jody dreams of being pulled through the wall by two dwarves, a scene repeated at the end of the movie, only with Mike instead.
Later, when Mike is lying on the ground after being attacked by the dwarves in Sally’s car, the film cuts back and forth between him on the ground and Jody’s face, almost as if Jody can see what is happening to Mike. Is the Jody of the film just Mike’s dream world version of his brother?
These are not the only two characters blurred together in Phantasm. The Lady in Lavender stabs and kills Tommy at the beginning of the film. A close up on her face cuts to a close up of the Tall Man’s face but this is never explained. This visual is repeated when she stabs Reggie at the end of the film. This is similar to the way characters in a dream often “become” someone else without explanation, or the way that a dream character looks like one person but you somehow “know” they are another person.
Mike is able to prove to Jody that the Tall Man is a real threat when he cuts off his fingers and brings one home. But when he and Jody decide to bring the severed finger to the police, in typical dream fashion, it is inexplicably transformed into a large insect that proceeds to attack them both. Reggie is soon brought into their shared nightmare when he arrives at the house and sees what’s going on.
Reggie is not only one of Jody’s best friends, he is also a guitarist and singer, as is shown when Jody is playing guitar and singing and Reggie stops by. Reggie immediately picks up his guitar and starts playing and singing, too, even though this is an unfinished song that Jody has been working on. Reggie’s speaking voice even sounds like Jody’s. At the end of the film, Reggie says that he’ll never be able to replace Jody in Mike’s life but that he’s going to try. Is Reggie real, or just another version of Jody?
Are the events we see in Phantasm a collection of Mike’s dreams? There are many shots of Mike lying in bed sleeping, which suggest that the entirety of the film is a dream. After all, only in a dream would it be possible for the Tall Man to lift a heavy coffin by himself. Only in a dream would a strange silver sphere hurtle through the air and kill people by piercing their skulls. Only in a dream would corpses be crushed into dwarves to be used as slaves on another plant. Only in a dream would someone bleed yellow liquid when killed instead of red blood. Only in a dream would a photograph move and the person in it look directly into your eyes.
Interestingly, Jody sees the Tall Man before Mike does, but he only registers as peculiar, not evil. It’s Mike who tries to convince Jody that the Tall Man is something supernatural. When Mike sees the Tall Man walking down the street, he’s paralyzed by terror. The Tall Man stands right behind Reggie’s ice cream truck, breathing in the cold fumes, but Reggie—moving in slow motion—doesn’t seem aware that anyone is nearby. Is the Tall Man real or just a figment of Mike’s dream world imagination? The granddaughter of the psychic he visits tells Mike that “fear is the killer” that “it’s all in your mind,” but then she disappears into the mysterious door at the funeral home.
So what is real and what is not real in Phantasm? It’s impossible to decide, which makes it one of the most disturbingly accurate portrayals of nightmare logic in cinema.