Phantasy Star Wars: The Horror Behind the Force
This is a “Nerd Voices” contribution from Nerdbot reader Jonathan Meisner. Follow Jonathan’s Phantasmic Voyage on Twitter.
When it comes to horror franchises, you’ve got your heavy hitters– Nightmare on Elm Street…Friday the 13th…Halloween…Leprechaun.
Nah, just kidding about that last one, those films were terrible. However, the Phantasm franchise has been around for almost 40 years and has amassed a cult following of fans. Don Coscarelli (who made some of my favorite films like Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End) was an independent filmmaker in 1977 when he conceived Phantasm. It was a film about an intergalactic and malevolent undertaker known simply as the Tall Man and his attempt to enslave humanity only to be faced with a ragtag trio hellbent to stop him.
But something else happened in our pop culture that same year. Something that would become very big, very important, and took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In 1977 a film you may have heard of entitled Star Wars was released onto the masses. And while the nerd battle always pits Star Wars against TV’s Star Trek, we have a deeper thing going on here. People have been comparing and battling in space all wrong. Because it’s Star Wars and Phantasm that we should really stuff together under that societal microscope. Those two little fuckers have way more in common than you may have thought. And in fact, when you think about it, really Phantasm truly reads like an Earth-bound version of a galaxy far, far away…
A brief word on telepathy.
The idea or the concept behind telepathy is that individuals can communicate without using any of our known sensory channels or actual physical interactions. A form of parapsychology that is considered more pseudo-science than actual science, and relegated more to sci-fi entertainment, telepathy is an underlying theme throughout both film franchises, and made an appearance during an important court case.
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The Tall Man and the Sith Lord
The Tall Man and Darth Vader are the first characters I wish to shine a spotlight on. Both men appear to be straightforward, and uncomplicated on the surface. Cut and dry. Black and white. They’re both evil with a legion of followers and are determined to rule over all.
But, as we get into the sequels within the franchise (Phantasm IV: Oblivion and Return of the Jedi, to be specific for this comparison), we begin to have the curtain drawn back for us and learn more about the path that both men would journey on. In Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi reveals to Luke that Darth Vader was at one-time his father Anakin Skywalker, a young apprentice of Obi-Wan’s, who quickly rose through the ranks to become a Jedi himself, but became corrupted along the way.
Partly due to immaturity and wanting too much power, too soon, or being led to believe he had lost his beloved Padme who was so…beautiful…because he was so in love with her, Anakin quickly submits to the Dark Side.
If there’s one thing George Lucas is known for, you can’t say it’s not romance. Well, you can of course, but that’s a story for another day. In Phantasm, the Tall Man robs graves and squashes the corpses into dwarven sized zombies to do his bidding (more on these dwarven zombies later). He shrinks the brains of the corpses and inserts them into silver spheres that he controls through telekinesis and projects towards his enemies with less than desirable results.
In the fourth film, Oblivion, we learn that the Tall Man was at one-point Jebediah Morningside, a 19th century mortician and inventor. Jebediah constructs a machine that allows him to travel through time and space; presumably to avoid having to take the horse and buggy into town for milk and bread. (fancy a ride by the tall man image) However, it’s not made clear where Jebediah goes when he enters the portal or what he encounters, but he eventually returns as the Tall Man. (the tall man image holding a silver sphere)
It’s within the realm of possibility that traversing through time and space, Jebediah bumped into Emperor Palpatine or a similar character of his ilk and was persuaded to join the Dark Side and rule over Earth.
So much for the milk and bread.
Use the Force
Circling back to our previous look at telepathy, as mentioned it plays a key role throughout the run of both the Star Wars and Phantasm franchises. Using Return of the Jedi and Phantasm Oblivion again as examples, Luke is drawn to Endor by Vader in hopes to persuade his father to give up the Dark Side and move towards being Anakin Skywalker again.
In Oblivion, Mike flees the mortuary from the third film and heads to the desert, maybe hoping to take a break from battling the Tall Man to take in that years Burning Man instead.
Yet the Tall Man and Mike are drawn to each other psychologically, and much like Luke and Anakin share the Force, the Tall Man has given Mike the same powers of telepathy and telekinesis that he has.
Luke and Mike are alike in the sense that they begin as young and impressionable characters who are unsure of their station in their respective universes, and are on personal quests for knowledge, redemption and closure as it relates to their counterparts in the Tall Man and Darth Vader.
Luke learns the Force, loses a hand along the way because he got a little too defiant of dear old Dad, but then ultimately redeems his father, releasing him from the Dark Side and gets to kick it partying with the Ewoks, then spends Christmas with a bunch of Wookies, before becoming a hermit on a remote island not off the coast of Ireland.
Mike winds up losing his parents and his brother Jody to the Tall Man, is admitted to a mental institution, gets a silver sphere embedded into his skull, and is then left to die in Death Valley. All while his ice cream man hippie friend Reggie chases after the Tall Man throughout multiple dimensions.
Burning Man ‘98 would probably have been less of a trip than Mike’s journey through the films timeline, with or without the use of psychedelic drugs.
Mike also has the distinction of getting “Prowse’d” along the way in Phantasm II.
What is Prowse’d, you ask?
Return of the Jedi has Anakin’s force ghost on Endor; portrayed by actor Sebastien Shaw and then later replaced with Hayden Christensen; because when you become a force ghost, you apparently take a dip in the fountain of youth as well.
Turns out no one gave Yoda or Obi-Wan the memo, because they remain their old as fuck selves. Talk about getting eff’d in the A, or boned in the J…you know…for Jedi, and.
Former bodybuilder David Prowse, who was in the Vader suit during filming, was rumored to have leaked the whole “Luke, I am your father” bit prior to Empire Strikes Back being released, royally pissing off George Lucas enough for Lucas to replace Prowse for the films unmasking of Vader by Luke and then as a final punishment, unleashed Howard the Duck on us all.
In Phantasm II, A. Michael Baldwin’s character of Mike is replaced by another actor, after studio execs based on the success of the first Phantasm, wished to fund the sequel but told Don Coscarelli in no uncertain terms he had to jettison the actors from the first film due to them being unknowns.
Coscarelli reached a compromise and kept Reggie Bannister on board but replaced Baldwin who was totally cool with the decision and understood completely. No really, guys. We mean it. Thus, getting Prowse’d. It’s totally a verb now, at least I’m claiming it as such. Speaking it into existence.
Scruffy Looking Nerf Herder/Badass Ride
Another comparison to be made is between two central characters who get thrust into their respective adventures somewhat hesitantly, but in the end take up the charge and aid our heroes.
Han Solo and Reggie both have swagger, as self-professed as it may be, and both have badass modes of transportation that they ultimately adopted from others. Han has the Millennium Falcon which he won in a bet from Lando Calrissian and Reggie has the ‘71 Hemi Cuda that he adopted from Mike and his brother Jody, because it was far more badass than the ice cream truck he was rocking around town with.
Both men as mentioned have the implied swagger; at least in their minds and are looking to impress the ladies in their life. While Reggie doesn’t quite make it with his ladies, due to either being stabbed in the first film by the Tall Man who shapeshifted into his alter ego of The Lady in Lavender; having them pull their scalp off in front of him and throwing him out the window of a hearse, or having silver spheres where their sweet cans would normally be, because it’s all a part of the Tall Man’s game, Reggie can’t catch a break.
Fighting off these silver spheres and what does he get? A serious case of blue balls. But, at least he doesn’t wind up like Han.
Sure, Han gets his girl in Leia but then he winds up frozen in carbonite, loses the Falcon and his marriage it appears according to what The Force Awakens would allude to, then gets the Falcon back with a new group of tag alongs, then is betrayed and killed by his own son.
At least Kylo Ren wasn’t shirtless, that time.
Both men aren’t afraid to shoot first either when called upon. Reggie with his trusty quad shotgun and Han with his blaster.
Although we all really know Han never shot first, or second.
Han shot and that’s the end of it.
Greedo never stood a chance.
We’ve Got the Biggest Balls of Them All
Another common thread between Phantasm and Star Wars are their weapons of destruction. The Empire has the Death Star, the Tall Man has his silver spheres.
The Tall Man’s silver spheres are controlled through his use of telekinesis; not unlike the use of the Force and can shoot lasers, cut through an adversary or drill a hole into the victims’ skull and project enough blood that Mortal Kombat may look at it and think Don Coscarelli could have toned it down a little, while also causing the victim to lose control of other bodily fluids and get your film dangerously close to an X rating.
By the fifth and presumably final Phantasm, (2017’s Ravager) we’re witness to a giant silver sphere taking out a city skyrise.
Running with the concept that Phantasm is an Earth-bound version of Star Wars, is this giant sphere not unlike a Death Star in its presentation and destructive powers? The Tall Man jumping between dimensions and timelines could have taken these concepts and brought them back to Earth with him.
Luckily for him, Mike and Reggie aren’t skilled in bulls eyeing womp rats.
Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
Both films series have gone on to inspire generations of fans.
When JJ Abrams was called upon to direct The Force Awakens he admitted being a huge Phantasm fan and created the Captain Phasma character as a nod to the horror franchise, even down to Phasma’s Stormtrooper armor being silver, not unlike the Tall Man’s silver spheres. In fact, considering Phasma is female, could she be the Tall Man in disguise under his alter ego of the Lady in Lavender?
Captain Phasma seemingly meets her demise near the end of The Last Jedi, whereas the Tall Man reincarnates anytime his physical form is killed, so if Phasma returns in Episode IX that will just reinforce my theory.
The easiest comparison between the two franchises, and how we got here in the first place, is the fact that when filming the first Phantasm, Don Coscarelli had the idea of little dwarven zombies cloaked in brown robes and hoods to aid the Tall Man in his efforts to overtake humanity. Except, they coincidentally looked like the droid selling Jawas of Tatooine. (Jawa zombie dwarves comparison image)
Coscarelli was 6 months into shooting when the news came back to him about a trailer for Star Wars having his characters in their film. Despondent at first and thinking of changing the robes to red or grey, he figured it’s just another movie that no one will remember in a few years.
Hmm, about that.
At least Coscarelli never gave us Jar-Jar Binks.