Thursday, November 22, 2018

Goofballs and Gaff Hooks - THE MUTILATOR

There is something magical about a good slasher movie, but there is something more magical about a bad one.  Yes, they are formulaic, and most often modeled off FRIDAY THE 13TH, which itself takes its cue from Mario Bava’s TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE.  So what?  Almost all movies follow a formula, from drama to action to romance.  What makes a movie interesting is how the filmmakers interpret, or misinterpret, the formula.  Wild left turns, tonal shifts, and inexplicable reasoning will keep you guessing, even if it is only to guess what the hell the director was thinking.  For instance, take a cute and fluffy sex comedy, mix in a brutal murderer fueled by whiskey and hatred, and get ready for the wholesome bloodbath that is 1984’s THE MUTILATOR.

The Capsule:
Ed Jr. (Matt Mitler) doesn’t have a close relationship with his dad.  Big Ed (Jack Chatham) drinks, is emotionally distant, and blames his son for his failed marriage.  The last point is valid, as 10 year-old Ed Jr. accidentally shot his mom while cleaning his dad’s gun as a birthday surprise.  So when deadbeat dad calls out of the blue and demands he clean and lock up his beach house for the season, Ed Jr. isn’t keen on doing him any favors.  But Ed’s college buddies think it sounds like just the place for suds and love during their Fall Break, so after a couple of quick driving and cleaning montages, they are ready for some subdued, inoffensive partying.  That is, until Big Ed, who had been sleeping off his last bender in the garage, wakes up in a homicidal haze and commences to ruin all their fun.  One by one, Big Ed takes out his son’s friends in increasingly brutal ways.  Can junior and his squeaky clean girlfriend, Pam (Ruth Martinez ), get mean enough to take on Ed senior, or will they too end up on his trophy wall?

Let’s get the obvious complaints out of the way first.  Of all the holiday inspired horror movie gimmicks, THE MUTILATOR (AKA: FALL BREAK) has the lamest.   Fall break isn’t even a holiday, it’s just the arbitrary period between college semesters.   At least Spring Break is associated with bikinis and alcohol and hedonism.  What images does Fall Break conjure?  Sweaters?  Colorful leaves?  The movie can’t even take advantage of the nearby Halloween imagery, because it’s staked its claim.   No pumpkins or black cats here, this is about the Fall Break, bitches.

Even worse, the movie mostly wastes its best asset, showing how spooky a deserted beach town is during the off season.  There’s a little strolling on the beach at night, and a couple goes skinny dipping in a plastic covered public pool (where the tension is dissolved by an excessively long game of Marco Polo), but the vast majority of the movie is set in one small beach house.  It’s like condensing Camp Crystal Lake into a condo.  That said, the filmmakers do a good job of working with their limited set.  There is a nice hide and stalk scene were the killer hunts around the dark house for victims, but the kids are just playing blind man’s bluff with each other and have no idea the person they are hiding inches away from wants to butcher them.  

Those gripes aside, the movie is a wild ride.  This tonal roller-coaster starts with the very first scene.  The prologue starts off all daises and sunshine, with the smiling mom lovingly decorating a cake in her tidy kitchen, cute Lil’ Ed eager to make his dad proud.  Once that colorful, hand drawn sign comes out, we know it’s all about to go south.  That kid’s “All your guns cleaned by me!” birthday surprise is the worst idea since “Your car’s brake lines cleaned by me!”  Sure enough, a moment later he unintentionally blows a hole through mom’s stomach and the cake is totally ruined. When Big Ed comes home, instead of screaming or crying or calling an ambulance, he wordlessly props his wife's corpse against the couch and starts drinking, with Ed Jr watching from hall.

In any other slasher, that kind of trauma would be Junior’s catalyst for becoming the killer. Plus, being raised by a guy who actively fantasizes about different ways of murdering you rarely leads to a happy childhood. Somehow though, he ends up being a mild mannered, well adjusted college kid.  A little boring even.  In fact, his whole crew is sort of a toned down, smooth jazz version of the typical slasher archetypes.   There’s the practical joker, the horny couple, the prude, but all in an inoffensively low key way.  They are so corny they break out a game of Monopoly.  Not strip Monopoly, either, just plain Monopoly.  They are kind of endearing, really, especially compared to the aggressively annoying group of victims populating most slashers.  Those dickheads deserve what’s coming to them, but I kind of feel bad about seeing these kids get bumped off.  

Especially in the ways they get bumped off, because for such an unassuming lead up, this fucker gets brutal incredibly fast.  One kid gets chewed up by an outboard motor, one gets pinned to a door through the neck.  A helpful cop gets stabbed in the face with a machete before being decapitated.  The most gruesome kill involves a giant gaff hook inserted into a region no hook was meant to go.  I suppose you wouldn’t want a gaff hook in any region of your body, but definitely not this one.  All the death scenes go just a little bit longer than is comfortable, at least in the unrated cut.  It would be kind of a bummer if the gore effects weren’t so laugh out loud excessive.  Maybe not that hook scene, though.  That was straight up traumatizing.  

One of the problems with low budget slashers is the lack of a distinctive killer (I’m looking at you, whatever-the-fuck-your-name-was from FINAL EXAM).  I’m happy to say that’s not the case here.  Big Ed doesn’t wear a cool mask or have a deformed face.  He’s not even physically imposing, just a middle-aged dude.  What makes Big Ed unique is his motivation.  I’m not talking about his resentment toward his son for killing his wife.  If that was the problem, he could have taken the kid out years ago.  No, the real reason he goes on a kill crazy rampage is because he is an angry, drunk asshole.  I don’t even think he planned any of it.  He just wakes up with a hangover, hears the kids upstairs, and simply decides, “Fuck it, I’m going to kill all those little college pricks.”

At no time does Big Ed look demented or maniacal.  He just looks annoyed.  Stupid punks making fun of my fishing trophies, I’ll show them.  Stupid cop with his nosy flashlight, I’ll show him.  Stupid other cop trying to stop me from murdering my son, I’ll show him! 

On the surface, the movie seems to follow the sex=death trope to the letter.  The super sexed up couples buy it first, while the clean cut virgin makes it to final girl territory.  It’s a better example of how this trope, or the way it is typically framed, is bullshit.  Big Ed is an asshole, not a prude.  He gives no fucks about who fucks.  This guy would have killed these kids if they were slipping away for bible study.  Now, judging from that one scene with the hook, Big Ed clearly has a nasty misogynistic streak, but he doesn’t let it overwhelm his even larger misanthropy.  He has enough murder in his heart for everyone.   

As with most slashers, the sex=death paradigm serves more of a technical function than a moral one.  Sneaking off for a quick one is a handy excuse to put the soon-to-be victims in a quiet, isolated setting.  It’s also a fine setup for the classic situation where the girl thinks she hears or sees something, but the dude is too focused on getting into her pants to pay her any attention.  Speaking of that, has a movie ever reversed the gender of that scenario?  “Hold on, Tina, I think I heard something!”  “Relax, Steve, you’re too wound up.  Let’s just loosen those tighty whities and you’ll feel better.”

Yes, the final girl does turn out to be the virginal Pam, but that just makes sense.  Not being consumed with thoughts of preppy, white bread sex allows her to pick up on all the warning signs.  Plus, she redirected all of her repressed energies into something more productive, like self defense classes.  This makes the level-headed wall flower the only person even remotely capable of dealing with Big Ed’s murderous, asshole rage.  She is certainly better prepared than her utterly useless boyfriend, who actually locks her in the garage closet while he attempts to be the hero.  After he fails miserably, she has to save herself and his lame ass.  

Big spoiler for the movie’s ending, but it is just too bonkers not to address.  After Pam lodges a lead fishing sinker into Big Ed’s noggin and stabs him in the chest, she and her useless, wounded boyfriend make it to the car and share a triumphant moment while we wait for Big Ed to make is inevitable return.  As expected, the drunken mutilator pops up and starts hacking through their car top with a battleaxe.  Lil’ Ed, who only now puts it together, screams “That’s my dad!”  Pam throws Big Ed off the car, and not being the kind of gal who gets fooled twice, throws it into reverse and plows her tormentor into a wall, cutting him in half.  But Big Ed is so much of an asshole that even though he is just a torso, he still manages to chop off a cop’s legs with his dying breath.  The best thing is the smile of satisfaction as he expires.  Some people hope to die peacefully surrounded by loved ones.   Big Ed dreamed of dying in a pool of his own blood, taking one last dumb son of a bitch with him.

True, THE MUTILATOR doesn’t break new ground as far as plot goes.  The characters never venture beyond their one dimension, and the acting won’t set the world on fire.  Yet, for all its predictable broad strokes, it's the nutty detail work that gives it charm.  I’ve never seen such a weird mix of harmlessly corny and gleefully vicious in one slasher before.  And I love that the killer is just a mean drunk.  It’s a pity the movie didn’t take off, because the Big Ed Halloween costume would be super easy.  You just need a bottle of bourbon, a gaff hook, and a simmering well of familial resentment. Come to think of it, maybe it makes a more appropriate Thanksgiving costume.  In any event, have a great Fall Break you goofballs.

C Chaka

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Balls to the Wall - PHANTASM II

I’m a stickler for order these days.  Even before the age of massive serialized movie properties like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where everything is connected and the movies just assume you’ve been keeping up, I felt weird about jumping into the middle of a series.  I’m always afraid I’ll be missing out on cool in-jokes, vital backstory, or emotional beats.  I can’t just walk into the latest MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie without knowing the full details of Ethan Hunt’s marital history.  I need to understand the deep emotional subtext built into the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise (something about family).  Walking in blind to an ongoing series is the kind of thing I have anxiety dreams about.  It wasn’t always this way, though.  In fact, my introduction to horror, possibly my favorite film genre, came almost exclusively in the form of Part Twos.

In my defense, the mid-Eighties were the golden age of the Part 2 horror movie, sort of a Wild West for sequels.  The franchise boom was rolling strong, but franchise formulas had yet to be perfected.  Dozens of popular to semi-popular horror titles were exhumed with hopes of making them into inexhaustible sequel factories.  However, many of these stories were never intended to go beyond the final credits. Re-configuring them often took a bit of creative thinking and a wild tonal shift.  The best ones retooled the often serious minded original with a healthy dose of humor, excess, and crazy ‘80s fun.  In doing so they made them accessible to a new generation of fresh faced horror fiends.   Movies like Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD 2 and Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 brought me into the horror fold.  So while Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM II may not be as artistically important as his original movie, it's the one that most gets my blood pumping.

The Capsule:
After spending 8 years in the Morningside Hospital for spouting wild tales about a mysterious Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who crunches down corpses to supply a trans-dimensional slave trade,  Michael (James Le Gros) finally admits it was all a dream and is released.  He is picked up by his best friend Reggi (Reggie Bannister), and they return home just in time to see Reg's entire extended family blown up by the Tall Man as a welcome back gift.  They hit the road in a '71 Hemicuda filled with weapons, intent on putting an end to the Tall Man's evil once and for all.  With the help of Mike's dream-linked soulmate, Liz (Paula Irvine), he and Reg track the Tall Man through a series of dried up ghost towns until arriving at his latest haunt, Perigord Funeral Home.  The Tall Man has a few new tricks up his sleeve, though, and Mike, Reggie, and Liz may be in for more of a fight than they were prepared for.
Anyone going directly from PHANTASM to PHANTASM II is bound to get tonal whiplash.  The elliptical, non sequitur structure of the first movie is gone, replaced with a more traditionally linear plot.  The sequel is no paint by numbers retread, though.  Coscarelli totally switches gears by upping the action and making a kick ass road movie.  While I love the first movie’s surreal weirdness, this was the perfect Phantasm intro for 16 year old me.  I was still years away from fully appreciating deliberate pacing, metaphor, and indie gumption, but a couple of armature monster hunters driving around in a bitchin’ muscle car with a trunk full of weapons was just up my teenage alley.
One of my favorite elements to those early franchise sequels was the opening catch up, the part that linked the happenings of the previous movie with the current setting.  It could come in the form of a lazy, best-of clip show, but the best one took the effort to seamlessly merge the preceding ending into the new open.  PHANTASM II has one of the best.  It starts with some psychic exposition narrated by Liz, simultaneously giving us the major points while establishing her dream link with Michael.  New, well-matched footage kicks in after the original’s crash cut ending, continuing the flashback the second it left off nine years before.  Coscarelli immediately sets the new tone by throwing Reg into a badass rescue sequence that has him punching out dwarfs, climbing up laundry chutes, and blowing up his house to save young Mike.  It is a total thrill that hooked me from the start.  

Given that this was my first taste of the Phantasm world, I had no resentment about James Le Gros replacing A. Michael Baldwin as Michael.  Le Gros doesn’t have any of the original Mike’s punk-ass bravado or emotional vulnerability, but he has plenty of dumb charm and great chemistry with Reggie Bannister.  And while Reg is played by the same actor, that character has undergone a serious evolution as well.  Taking a page from Bruce Campbell’s Ash, Reg has put away his folk guitar and ice cream man uniform to become a heroic goofball.  He never backs down from a fight, but it rarely goes as smoothly as he is expecting.

Before starting the hunt, Coscarelli indulges in a distinctly ‘80s action trope, the "getting ready" sequence.  It’s the scene that stokes our commercialism fantasy of the ultimate badass shopping spree, where the hero(s) break into a store and grab every weapon in sight.  Think of Schwarzenegger’s gun store looting scene from COMMANDO, except that since this is a horror movie, Reg and Mike break into a hardware store.  Seeing them load up on sledgehammers, chainsaws, and cordless drills gave me a giddy anticipation of the bloody mayhem to follow.   It’s not just off the shelf stuff, either.  The boys get crafty with their DIY demon hunting arsenal.  Mike builds a flame thrower by lashing together several blow torch tanks and Reg mods a couple of shotguns to make his legendary quad-barrel, anti-killer dwarf cannon.  Literally tooled up, Reg leaves a wad of bills on the register to cover their haul.  You know, to show that he is an honest citizen at heart.  Of course, that does beg the question of why they didn’t just go into the hardware when it was open and buy everything like normal people.  I guess it wouldn’t have looked as cool.

Angus Scrimm is back as the Tall Man, still scary as hell with no need of mask or makeup application.  All the menace comes solely from Scrimm’s physical performance, booming voice, and subtle, but wicked, sense of humor.  Coscarelli gives him meatier dialogue this time, but never resorts to the sort of quippy puns that changed Freddy Krueger from a primal fear into wacky game show host.  The mystery of the Tall Man and his quiet, devilish grin is far more unsettling than any clever threat.  The closest he comes is when he is toying with Kenneth Tigar’s alcoholic priest who unwisely attempts an exorcism.  “You think when you die you go to heaven.  You come to us.”    He doesn’t even bother to kill the poor sap, only to destroy his faith.  He leaves the messy work to his staff.

Speaking of the staff, the Tall Man’s roster of creepy cronies has expanded over the years.  He still has his army of killer dwarfs, but new employees include a grampa zombie, a mangled dream monster, and the gravers, hulking, gas mask wearing mutes who exhume the coffins and know how to throw down with a chainsaw.  The Tall Man also employs a couple of normal (if pallid) mortuary assistants for menial tasks, like disposing of bodies, alive or dead, and gathering up cremation ash (for a Mr. Sam Raimi, according to the label). 

Those are guys are just small time shotgun fodder, though.  The Employee of the Month is smaller, shinier, and far deadlier.  As the tag line states, “The ball is back.”  Not only is it back, it brought a couple of friends.  For such an innovative and eye catching (as well as brain sucking) murder gizmo, the first movie gave an unceremonious introduction to the Silver Sphere.  This batch gets a more fitting introduction, rolling out of a cute mini-coffin like little round rock stars.  The standard model has a few new tricks, like an ear slicing rotary saw, but the big addition is the golden sphere.  It can burn through doors, shoot lasers, and has a brand new, overly elaborate kill sequence, as one unlucky embalmer discovers when it buzzsaws into his back, churns through his torso, and pops out of his mouth.  It turns out the spheres can even be inserted like keys into special doors.  They are the supernatural horror version of a Swiss Army Knife.  

Reg and Mike are joined in the fight by a couple of new faces.  Paula Irvine’s Liz is Mike’s psychically linked romantic interest.  At first she seems like the standard damsel in distress plot device, but Coscarelli smartly subverts this expectation.  In one scene, Liz is abducted to the mortuary and is poised to slide straight into a flaming crematorium.  It looks like a Perils of Pauline style setup, where the helpless woman inches closer to doom before being rescued by the dashing hero at the last second.  Instead, Liz rolls to safety herself, kicks her kidnapper in the nuts, and sends him into the crematorium.  No rescue necessary, thank you very much.  Mike saves her from the Tall Man, but she returns the favor right away and keeps pace with the dudes for the rest of the movie.

Also in the mix is Samantha Phillips as the mysterious hitchhiker Reg picks up on the road, one who happens to look just like the dead woman Mike saw in his dream.  Oh, and her name is Alchemy, so nothing suspicious there.  Mostly she is there to be Reg’s bad girl counterpoint to Mike and Liz’s innocent romance,  and her only lasting contribution to the series is to establish Reg as a somewhat pathetic horndog.  Still, Phillips adds a nice chaotic vibe to our happy band.  

The original movie's nonsensical mine shaft showdown with the Tall Man was its weakest moment.  Coscarelli more than makes up for it here.  We get to see how tough this lanky bastard is when Mike redirects a silver sphere into his forehead.  After it does its fountain of (yellow) blood routine, the Tall Man just plucks it out and crushes it like an empty beer can.  Of course, we know there is something even better waiting in the wings.  Earlier Reg makes the point of replacing the formaldehyde in an embalming pump with hydrochloric acid, and as Chekov says, if you show a hydrochloric acid pump in the first act, you have to use it by the last. Needless to say, the end result is a spectacularly goopy display of practical effects even the Tall Man has a hard time walking off. Sure, everything ends on another circular, crash cut cliffhanger, but the road to get there more than makes up for it.  

While the PHANTASM saga continues on through another three sequels, my coverage does not.  I hate to say that none of the sequels engaged me like the first two movies.  Coscarelli made some Phanatics (fans of Phantasm) happy by bringing back A. Michael Baldwin for PHANTASM III, but since James Le Gros was my original Mike, I didn't care for it.  Plus, the plot was more convoluted and sillier.  PHANTASM: OBLIVION returned to a more serious tone, but it sent the story on a more disjointed, metaphoric path.  PHANTASM: RAVAGER was an extremely heartfelt and emotional farewell to the characters, and to Angus Scrimm himself, but the movie surrounding it was a godawful mess of terrible CGI and jarring transitions.  I still like them all, but as far as reviews go, the hearse stops at two.  That's more than enough balls for me.

C Chaka

Saturday, October 6, 2018


Horror movies can mess up a young, impressionable mind, mostly in good ways.  I’ve written about how movie related childhood trauma can mutate from terror into curiosity into obsession, but it doesn’t have to be such a psyche bruising experience.  As a wee tyke, I vividly remember flipping through the TV dial, alone in the den, and finding something wholly inappropriate on HBO.  Now, this was the same channel that left me curled into the fetal position from the overwhelming sights and sounds of MAD MAX, so I should have been smart enough to leave it alone.  This time, though, it didn’t send me screaming to hide in the corner.  Quite the opposite, I was mesmerized.  Nothing overtly scary was happening on screen, no monsters or chainsaws or blood spraying, but I knew something wasn’t right.  The scene was a boy looking around in a graveyard.  That’s all.  My unease wasn’t about what was happening on screen, but what could happen.  The anticipation was both dreadful and fascinating.  A few seconds later, someone came in and changed the channel, denying me my release.  I had no idea where this scene of delicious tension came from, and for years it existed only in reoccurring dreams.  Which is fitting, since the scene turned out to be from Don Coscarelli’s delirious 1979 nightmare, PHANTASM.

The Capsule:
Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), is a typical kid growing up in the ‘70s California suburbs.  He rides a dirt bike, he spies on his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury) when he scores with chicks, his best friend is a guitar playing ice cream truck driver (Reggie Bannister).  A lot of people in his small town have been dying lately, though, and when Mike witnesses something strange at Morningside cemetery, life becomes much less typical.  Soon he’s being stalked by hooded growling dwarfs, swatting at giant monster flies, and dodging a cranium drilling silver sphere.  Worst of all, he’s got the attention of The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the otherworldly manager of the Morningside mausoleum, who seems to be harvesting corpses to make pint sized slaves.  Can Mike convince his brother and Reggie that this isn’t just a dream before The Tall Man swallows up the whole town?

PHANTASM was part of the horror crop of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, like HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and EVIL DEAD, that was destined for franchise.  It had those indelible, signature elements that you could hang a series on: a standout villain and a unique weapon.  As with Michael and his butcher knife, Jason and his machete, and later, Pinhead and his S&M gear, Phantasm had The Tall Man and his sphere(s).   Out of all the classic horror franchises, PHANTASM had the strangest trajectory.  Fitting, because the original is a serious fucking oddball.

Even among its fellow ‘70s horror movie, PHANTASM is excessively ‘70s,  specifically West Coast ‘70s.  While other movies had their shadowy old houses and shady suburban lanes, PHANTASM  is blasted in glorious Californian sunshine for much of the running time.  Everyone looks like Lief Garrett or a Hardy Boy, except for Reggie, who looks like Reggie Bannister.  All the young women in the movie are blonde and indistinguishable from each other.  It often looks more like a sweet coming of age film or a sex comedy, until the weird shit starts happening.

Even during the weird shit, it’s still a hard film to peg.  There is a strange, meandering, dreamlike tone that doesn’t fit traditional structure.  This wasn’t Coscarelli’s first film.  I think he knew how to do things the conventional way, he just didn’t want to.  There is an anarchistic feel to the movie, it goes where it wants to, and doesn’t have to answer to you.  The opening has a very “we now return our movie, already in progress” vibe.  We know that something nefarious is going on, but Coscarelli takes his sweet time showing you the big picture.  None of the jigsaw pieces seem to fit.  The ultimate revelation of why the Tall Man is crunching down corpses to make zombie dwarf slaves is nuttier than anything we could have expected, and it opens up even more unanswered questions (as far as I can remember, the series never completely explains just what the hell is going on).

As for the franchise’s hallmark murder weapon, the silver sphere makes its appearance just as inexplicable.  It is suddenly just there as Mike is wandering the mausoleum halls, screeching through the air.  No reference, no foreshadowing, just there.  When Mike dives out of the way, it goes for some unlucky schmo coming through a door (a funeral worker? Dad looking for his missing daughter? Homeless guy?) and pegs him right in the forehead.  All questions take a back seat once it starts to do its thing, though, because the Phantasm sphere is the most unique, craziest, and most badass death dealer in horror history.  Elegantly excessive and impossibly complicated, the sphere is essentially a supernatural Rube Goldberg execution machine.  It spikes, it drills, it shoots a fountain of blood out from an opening in the back.  There is no need for it to go through all that trouble to kill someone, but it is awesome that it does.  I can completely understand why Mike just stands there watching instead of running.  That murder ball puts on a show!  One of my gripes with the series farther down the line is that it explained what the spheres really were, and they lost a bit of their magic.  There shouldn’t be an explanation for something so out there.  All you need to know is that it’s a flying brain juicer, and it is glorious.
The most bizarre scene in the whole movie, though, is when Mike goes to an old, blind psychic looking for answers.  The old woman only communicates through her young, blond granddaughter.  Even stranger, she seems to be a Bene Gesserit sister, because she puts Mike through the Pain Box scene from Frank Hurbert’s Dune.  When Mike calmly puts his hand in the box that magically appeared on the table in front of him (perfectly reasonable reaction), the granddaughter encourages him to overcome his fear and not to pull out when he feels excruciating pain.  And though we never learn the deal with the old woman, her proxy warning, “Fear is the killer,” does come up later.  Note, this is five years before David Lynch filmed a virtually identical scene in the movie DUNE, only his wasn't set in a dark living room in California.  I believe this is the only time a director has come up with something stranger than David Lynch. 
Another great, weirdo moment occur when Mike finally has the proof to convince Jody he isn’t just dreaming.  It comes in the form of one of the Tall Man’s severed fingers, still wiggling in a pool of yellow blood.  Mike keeps the purloined finger in a box that rattles around all night, until he is about to show his dubious brother.  As expected, the finger isn’t there anymore, because it somehow turned into a giant, razor toothed monster fly that attacks Mike until they shove it down the garbage disposal.  Mike’s Tall Man/killer dwarf stories don't sound so far fetched after that.
The movie absolutely nails the disjointed, illogical feel of a dream.  Even without the killer dwarfs and haunted hearses, the story jibes with preteen boy subconscious.  No parents, hanging out with his cool older brother, getting to drive a sweet Hemi Cuda muscle car, fighting off monsters with a knife and a gun.  It also plays into a common kid fear of being abandoned.  Mike already lost his parents, and he is terrified that his brother will ditch him for the bitchin’ life of feather haired troubadour.  

The real star of the movie (and series) is The Tall Man.  He is an incredibly unsettling and memorable horror villain, which is something considering he is, as his name indicates, just a tall man.  Supernatural, probably alien, possibly unstoppable, yes, but still just a dude.  With no creepy mask or gruesome makeup to hide behind, the Tall Man’s power is 100% in the performance of Angus Scrimm.  His deep, gravelly voice booms with total authority, like a sadistic middle school principal.  Though he has a grand, otherworldly mission to perform, Scrimm puts a little twinkle in the Tall Man’s eye that shows he gets a real kick out of his work.  He’s the guy at PhantasmCorp who was eager to stay in body crushing duty, instead of angling for a better paying job like Executive Sphere Manager or Chief of Dwarf Labor.
In the end, [Spoiler] it all turns out to be a dream.  Mike was just trying to process his grief over losing his brother in a car accident.  This would normally be a cop out, but when you consider how the movie is staged, it does make sense that…oh shit, the Tall Man just showed up and got him!  So, it wasn’t a dream after all!  Or, the events of the movie were a dream, since Jody is dead and Reggie is still alive, but the underlying evil forces are real.  Or maybe the part where Mike woke up from the dream is a dream, and the Tall Man is just fucking with him.  Maybe it was all because of that crazy, blind psychic?  We may never know, until nine years later when the sequel explains it.  Sort of.

The original PHANTASM stays very true to its name.  Dreams are weird.  They aren’t supposed to make sense.  They are supposed to fill you with dread and fascination.  You are meant to feel discombobulated and unsure.  All these years later, I still get a shiver watching Mike walk through the graveyard in absolute silence.  Don Coscarelli left a scar on my little boy brain than lingers to this day, and I am grateful.  A heightened taste for the surreal can be just the thing when the real world gets too depressing.

C Chaka

Post Script:  Perhaps the strangest thing about PHANTASM is not in the movie at all, but on the IMDB page.  The displayed plot keywords, out of 255, are: fellatio, hot woman, breast, and c cup.  These words do not accurately describe what to expect from this movie, in my opinion.  Has “c cup” ever been a prominent search keyword for a movie?  What kind of perv is running IMDB?  PHANTASM’s dreamlike pacing would alienate casual viewers to begin with, can you imagine how pissed someone would be if they watched it based solely on IMDB’s weird, modest boob obsessed suggestions?