Slow, moody, but beautifully shot in and around a huge white-marble mausoleum, Phantasm (1979) begins on a depressing note: a man having sex in a graveyard with a sinister Lady in Lavender. After flashing her breasts, the woman flashes a knife and stabs him to death. At his funeral, we meet his friends: Reggie (Reggie Bannister), a chunky nerd, bald with a pony tail, who drives an ice cream truck; and Jody (Bill Thornbury), a hard drinkin’, guitar-playin’ slacker who doesn’t seem to work, but still manages to live in a huge house with guns and stuffed carnivores, and drive a fancy “Triple Black Hemicuda Convertible."
Jody’s kid brother Mike (15-year old A. Michael Baldwin), who follows him around like a forlorn puppy dog, becomes the protagonist, sneaking into the labyrinthine mausoleum and discovering that the mortician, called only the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), has been squashing the newly-deceased into gibbering dwarfs and transporting them to another planet (I don’t know why). When corpses don’t appear quickly enough through natural causes, he is not averse to harvesting the living. For some reason, he is especially interested in Mike; he sends dwarfs, regular-sized henchmen, and flying silver golf balls to fetch him, or goes himself, either in his ordinary costume or in drag as the breast-baring Lady in Lavender. Toward the end of the movie keeps popping up at unsuspected moments to shout “Boy-y-y-y!”
The Tall Man is not the only one with an interest in Mike: the camera loves him, lingering on his face in tight closeups and constantly flashing butt and crotch shots, even though he is soft, androgynous, and amazingly girlish. Director Don Coscarelli makes increasingly desperate attempts to portray Mike as macho, making him shoot guns, cuss, drink beer, and work on cars. Two different teenage girls try to flirt with him, but he staunchly refuses to give them a second glance; when the Lady in Lavender arrives, he whispers “Don’t fear” and rushes away. Finally Coscarelli gives up and lets Mike remain that rarity in the horror genre, an (almost) openly gay protagonist.
Like Leif Garrett, Mike is unable to play a scene with a male actor without imbuing it with a palpably erotic yearning. Maybe the scenes with older brother Jody as the easy intimacy of siblings, but what about scenes with Reggie? Mike is constantly touching him, grabbing him, hugging him. He goes out of his way to hitch rides on the ice cream truck when he is not at all interested in ice cream. When Reggie seems dead, it is Mike, not Jody, who is disconsolate, crying “What are we gonna do without him?”
Reggie is usually oblivious to Mike’s affection, but in one very enigmatic scene near the end of the movie, they are sitting crosslegged on the living room floor, discussing a plan to fight the Tall Man. While Jody is talking in the foreground, Reggie in the background quite blatantly places his hand on Mike’s upper thigh, only an inch or two from his crotch. He squeezes for a long moment. Mike flashes a quick, dreamy smile, and Reggie takes his hand away.
Perhaps Reggie was “supposed to” be comforting Mike in the face of a crisis, but surely it would be more appropriate to squeeze his shoulder or arm; the upper thigh is reserved for expressions of erotic interest. Instead, they seem to be acknowledging, briefly and tentatively, a romantic undertow in their relationship. As the movie ends, Jody has died, and Reggie and Mike are planning to go away together. They stay together through three sequels, with rarely a brother or girlfriend to intrude.