London Film Festival 2016: PHANTASM REMASTERED

There's a Kafka short story called 'Blumfeld, an Elderly Batchelor' in which the protagonist is inexplicably followed around by a couple of floating balls:

He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light.
He is not prepared for what he sees. For this is magic – two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the parquet; when one of them touches the floor the other is in the air, a game they continue ceaselessly to play. . . .
Blumfeld bends down to get a good look at them. They are undoubtedly ordinary balls, they probably contain several smaller balls, and it is these that produce the rattling sound. Blumfeld gropes in the air to find out whether they are hanging from some threads–no, they are moving entirely on their own. [Full text online here]

Phantasm (USA, 1979, dir. Don Coscarelli) also features strange floating balls and they have fascinated me ever since I saw them in the late 1980s. The balls in Phantasm, however, are made of highly polished chrome and they zoom around the chill marble corridors of the mausoleum in a small Oregon town, hunting down inquisitive intruders. When a sphere catches such an intruder, it attaches itself to their forehead with tiny metal forks and then bores a hole through the skull with a purpose-built drill bit. The contents of the skull are energetically, even joyously, sprayed out of the back of the sphere, through a small aperture, all over the walls and floors. It's a spectacular and rather messy form of deterrent.

As I write this, I have a chuckle in my throat at the memory of this outrageous conception, which is never explained or contextualised: it just is. It's just dream logic. Phantasm.

The flying spheres are in the service of the town's mortician, known only as 'The Tall Man' and played by the recently deceased 'gentle giant', Angus Scrimm. He's a walking Giacometti sculpture who can heft fully laden coffins onto his shoulder like they were bags of oranges. He oversees an elaborate export business whereby the town's dead are converted into cowled dwarves and shipped in barrels (naturally) to another dimension to be used as slaves 'because of the gravity'.

This heinous plot is slowly uncovered by young Mike, our teenage hero whose parents have recently died, his elder brother Jody and their unlikely sidekick Reggie Banister (a balding, pony-tailed ice-cream vendor who dresses in white, plays pretty good blues guitar and proves to be – over the series of five films in the Phantasm stable – quite the Lothario).

Of such bizarre elements are instant classics made and the London Film Festival was presenting the brand-new 4K restoration (courtesy of superfan J.J. Abrams and his team). Of all the films I saw this year, Phantasm was the best attended and had the warmest, most excited audience. The elegant Picturehouse Central cinema was packed with new fans and old, keen to chuckle and scream along with the glorious new print and regale the Q&A session with stores of how they had all (seemingly) seen Phantasm when they were 12 years old.

I actually thought I'd seen it when I was 12 but piecing things together, I don't think that was possible. The VHS wasn't available in the UK till the mid-1980s, so I probably saw it around then. I may even have seen it after the rather fine (and much more inventively gory) Phantasm II, which was released in 1988 when I was living in Brighton, doing an MA in Critical Theory. Yes! This is when I put Kafka and Coscarelli together.

Talking of Don Coscarelli: he introduced the film and followed up with a sparkling, generous Q&A session. He made Phantasm when he was 25 and he only looks about 40 now, even though I worked out that he must be 61. There's a boyish eagerness and warmth to his personality which is present throughout Phantasm. If the plot and some of the events I've described sound grim and bloody, the film is actually rather benign. It's frequently merciful to its protagonists and secondary characters and indulgent of their flaws and weaknesses. While terrible things are clearly afoot, there's no sense of sadism or malice from the side of the filmmakers. There's a kind of pure adventure story going on. A fairy tale as well as a phantasm.

Like a lot of horror films, it's trying to come to terms with the mystery of death, the fear of the afterlife (whether there is one or not), what to do with your feelings when you've lost someone you love, and how exploitative some export businesses can be!

My favourite moments from the Q&A were hearing about how, through the 4K restoration, they were finally able to remove annoying things like yellow buckets accidentally left around, marring otherwise perfect compositions; how they digitally erased the fishing lines that supported the killer spheres back in 1979; and how Don's mother Kate Coscarelli agreed to write the novelisation of the film, adding lots of background detail and complex psychology. She went on to have a successful career as a novelist.

The other great piece of news is that there's a fifth and final film on its way to the UK: Phantasm: Ravager, which looks as mad as ever, and has a decent budget. See also, because it's hilarious and features the sublime Bruce Campbell, Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep. 

Next up: no more. That's all my London Film Festival blogs for this year.