So before I say anything else about Don Coscarelli's Phantasm (1979), I need to get this out of the way.
The haircuts. My god the haircuts.
And from the back...
And on another note, forget the ear in Blue Velvet. Along with Orlac's knife-throwing killer hands in Mad Love, Phantasm has probably the best partial object/automated-morcellated-body-extension moment ever (imagine this thing wriggling around, gently straightening itself, etc) in "blood" that looks suspiciously like lemon custard:
What actually interests me about this film (which is rather a blast, although it's darker and nastier than one might think) is how it thinks about two things: the degree to which spaces of death should look analogous to "white cube" minimalist-modernist design (apparently, quite a lot but with the necessary accents of neo-classicism and materials that imply stone-like duration); and what it might look like for evil to be neither infinite nor finite, but to be limited yet transhistorical across a human time scale (apparently wearing suits that are too small for you and grimacing a fair amount).
More, what that evil is busy doing if we subtract out the idea that the villain just enjoys doing this. Because in Phantasm, we get the smile of the killer (the Tall Man, the undertaker who collects and works on producing corpses), but it is a weary smile, the smile of someone who has to put on a good face at his job of... turning dead bodies into zombie dwarf slaves for an alien planet. Phantasm is, in this odd manner, a film about work, about the minor pleasures and the larger inconveniences that come from never really getting a day off.
The film is split between two locations: the suburban town (and its peripheries, roads, etc), and the funeral home/mausoleum. This mausoleum is visually split between two poles of reference. First, the ancient temple necropolis, with cold, fine marble, somewhat arbitrary busts, and this hanging relief of what may be the Greek pantheon:
So we are coded, initially, to read this as a sort of timeless space, the house of death where life does not belong and where there the intrusion of the living is what cannot be tolerated. And indeed, the hulking, primitive dwarfs in their druid-like hooded robes seem to support this: like a subspecies that missed the evolutionary train, now and always held in the sway of a figure of ultimate evil (the Tall Man).
To think of the film in this way - in the mode of viewing it first invites us to adopt before deflecting those expectations - is to miss Phantasm's stranger constructions.
And one of those constructions is death via what is essentially a large paperweight, albeit one that floats, extends knives, and drills out brains.
Hooded evil zombie dwarves ("they've been squashed") made from the corpses collected by the Tall Man, on the one hand, unnecessary sleek futuristic objects, on the other.
This is the opposition that structures the world of the funeral home, the world of the Tall Man: the unaging relics of the past and its primeval secrets, as opposed to the present that wants to be a dream of the future.
The real site of this second tendency is the room over whose door hangs the pantheon relief. As such, an expected ancient site, one that belongs neither to the suburban town nor to the supposed efficiency and secular dignity of a funeral home that's been in business for quite a while.
But when we enter, we get the following:
Those barrels are the large "dwarf jars": inside each is a squashed corpse. And to be sure, there is a sort of ancient tomb echo here, of jars of organs or precious objects in Egyptian tombs, for example. But when the camera pans right to the "gate", the tone shifts radically, and in doing so, rewrites those jars. We are basically in a 70's minimalist installation, something between the illuminated spaces of Nauman, a Tony Smith piece gone more sinister, and Wolfgang Laib reliquary-esque objects made of industrial materials rather than wax. The particular references aren't of much importance, though, because what this room really does is stand in for what we think futuristic should look like: cold, sterile, ordered, unmarked, filled with objects whose interface we don't understand, a space designed for those in the know, a group of which we are definitively not a part. A space of alien technology and human design, at least insofar as we get that it is supposed to look like something from our future. Something quite different from the archaic ancient space of the mausoleum.
As with much of Phantasm, the fact that what we expected (a space of ancient, timeless evil) isn't the case does not negate this option, as it is a template for a sort of narrative excess that I've been detecting in a lot of horror films, particularly those from the 70's and 80's: in short, it is indeed the case that this site does not belong, yet the fact that it does not belong in the manner we expected it to fit wrongly (i.e. it is wrong for the wrong reason) does not undo the initial "false" way of making meaning about the events offered to us by the film. Instead, these "wrong" readings persist, not as possibilities that might have been, but as actual currents, directions, and techniques within the film.
The choice is a non-choice: the excess of possible meaning is not cleanly excised from the film. What we have, then, is a film of overdetermination, one in which what should be mutually contradictory instead becomes mutually dependent, knotted together in the figure and labor of the Tall Man.
However, what strikes me about this construction of Phantasm is that there is no "third term," as it were: there is simply the mute repetition of a labor without end.
For as we discover, the reason that he turns the corpses into dwarf zombies is to send them through the gate to work as slaves on what we presume to be his planet.
But is it necessarily his planet? And is he necessarily "evil"?
This fact, which superficially is supposed to function as final proof of his diabolical nature, has quite the opposite effect. It undoes the entire mythos of the funeral home and of his alleged evil. He is, to be sure, a rather grouchy and nasty figure. But...
As a villain, he isn't very far up the totem pole. For what does his labor consist of? He is not the one orchestrating the labor on the distant planet: he is basically a skilled laborer, someone who knows how to turn human corpses into zombie dwarves. And while he keeps a few around to protect his business, they are not there to serve him. They exist to be sent to another labor "market."
More crucially is the fact that while we get the occasional death caused by him (the corpses produced then turned into a dwarf), he actually doesn't interfere with the town's operations. He waits for people to die, a low-level harvester who provides a necessary service and, in a true entrepreneurial spirit, has discovered how to make something of use out of that which is no longer of value to anyone else. In the later films, we get an impression of him moving from town to town, but here, he really is a mortician of sorts, doing a job that needs to be done and that few people want to do. And on top of that...
He's been doing it for a damn long time (as we learn in the photo from the antique shop that reveals him as a "timeless" being). Perhaps, then, his nastiness comes less from an innate evil and more from the fact that this must get old, a being of apparently great power stuck in a dead-end job in a town where he can't have friends, waiting for people to die but not killing too many because it would raise suspicion. He may be unkillable and somewhat immortal, but his weariness tells us that he sure isn't eternal, just that he's been here for longer than he might like to be.
What Phantasm gives us, finally, is a sense of how the circuits of production and accumulation hinges upon two types of excess that we'd really rather not know about. There are the waste products of life (the corpses) remobilized, taken care of by someone. And as long as we aren't confronted directly with the fact of their reanimation, literal or figurative, as long as we don't have to accept the fact that our parents may in fact now be zombie dwarf slaves working on another planet, we accept this, because we know all the same that this redeployment, this thawing of frozen, dead capital is necessary for the functioning of the system.
And the other type of excess? The Tall Man, the part who doesn't belong to any whole: separated from his planet, wherever that may be, outside of the normal cycles of human time but forced to function in his labor according to the rhythms unnatural to him (the life-span of the humans whose corpses he works on). The Tall Man is just another worker, caught between two worlds of time, alien not because he bleeds thick yellow matter but because, like most of the world, his time is not his own.