Let’s talk about independent filmmaking now and then. I just watched Phantasm (1979) with my daughter and found myself having to explain why anyone would find this movie terrifying. But we did find it terrifying and Don Coscarelli subsequently had a fine career as a master of horror (and even directed one of the best Masters of Horror episodes, Incident On And Off A Mountain Road).
When you look at independent films of the 1970s, you have to understand they didn’t have $3,000 HD Canons with in-camera digital effects. They didn’t edit their movies on their MacBooks while sipping java at the local Starbucks. They had to rent bulky, out-of-date 35mm cameras and physically cut film into strips and tape it back together. It’s a wonder indies got made at all.
But back to what was frightening about Phantasm when it first came out. The Tall Man. The malignant dwarves. The murderous graveyard harpy. The flying silver orbs of grisly death. These were the things we were talking about in 1979. “Have you seen Phantasm?” We’d ask anyone mooning over The Amityville Horror (a movie I hated then and still hate now).
So why wasn’t it scary when we watched it last night? That’s easy. You must watch a horror film in a movie theater. Being in a dark room surrounded by strangers heightens the anxiety and intensifies the experience. We were watching it at home in a well lit room while making jokes about the bell bottoms and crazy haircuts. And that’s the second thing: It is easy to get distracted by the outdated clothing and hilarious 70s dialog. “I don’t get off on funerals, man, they give me the creeps,” being just one example.
Finally, what Stephen King refers to as our “set of reality” has moved on to include seamless digital graphics and that makes the old practical effects seem hokey at times, although I’m still wondering how they got some of the shots of the flying orbs.
So if you do decide to watch Phantasm on DVD just make sure to invite a bunch of strangers into your living room, dress everyone in puka shells and bell bottoms, and turn all the lights out before you put it up on that big screen TV. You’ll thank me.