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Grief and Terror with THE FINAL GIRLS and PHANTASM

Chad Collins processes grief through a retrospective of PHANTASM and THE FINAL GIRLS.

By Chad Collins

C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” To Lewis, and so many others, it’s a sensation not unlike being afraid, replete with “fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning” of pure, abject terror. More than anything, though– perhaps the most frightening thing about grief– is its permanence. It is an enduring state.

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Most fear is ephemeral; it ebbs and flows alongside the vagaries of life. Like first love or good humor, confidence or elation, common fear– quotidian fear, the kind elicited from a shrieking cat or late-night knock on the door– soon evaporates. Grief is a permanent fear. It’s an awareness that things will never be the same, that someone– maybe a person you loved more than any other in the world– is never coming back. It’s the fear that you’re next and the fear– the hellish, unbridled fear– that you will have to face it alone, without them.

My uncle, my mom’s brother, passed away at the end of February after a long battle with cancer. It’s been difficult for me, yes, but it’s been almost unfathomably hard on my mom. For a few days afterward, she was in this sort of daze, almost like she was suspended in water; a bog mummy submerged in the throes of grief. She didn’t really move or eat, and she didn’t talk all that much beyond what was absolutely necessary. Slowly, however, she moved, if not necessarily out of it, at least beyond the worst of it, those reeds of grief that cloud vision and paralyze the soul.

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Recently, on the forty-second anniversary of Phantasm, she healed a little bit more. She still seemed almost mildly concussed, like there was still some chasm between her and the world of the living, but she looked and sounded better, even if just a little bit. Ghosts and grief were inevitable, but the ghosts of someone else’s world– Don Coscarelli’s ghosts– seemed to bring her toward the light.

Synopsis:
The residents of a small town have begun dying under strange circumstances, leading young Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) to investigate. After discovering that the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the town’s mortician, is killing and reanimating the dead as misshapen zombies, Mike seeks help from his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), and local ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Working together, they try to lure out and kill the Tall Man, all the while avoiding his minions and a deadly silver sphere.

My mom and uncle had a history of horror, a history that, in no small part, inspired my own. I loved listening to stories of my grandparents going out to dinner, an opportunity my mom and uncle took advantage of to watch When Michael Calls on ABC while living in a new Georgia suburb, one that backed up to a dense cluster of trees, impenetrable in the darkness. Every time the phone rang, or a branch scrapped against the window, they screamed. They were kids and the only fear they knew was Michael Douglas on the phone pantomiming the dead.

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They continued to watch horror movies for years after that, and their favorite– or, at least, their most memorable– was Phantasm. Years after seeing it, they still often concluded phone calls with, “Boooy!” It was a collectively owned and appreciated piece of cinema that they made distinctly theirs. They referenced it and laughed about it, and all these years later, even after the sentiment was no longer true, they maintained that it was the scariest movie they had ever seen. When they talked about Phantasm, they talked like kids. In a way, they were kids again. Nothing stayed put, abided by memories of the Tall Man.

My mom showed me Phantasm while I was in middle school, and though I’m a big fan of Don Coscarelli’s classic now, I thought it was the silliest thing I’d ever seen at the time. I watched it, though– using my allotted weekly Blockbuster rental for a DVD copy– because it was important to my mom. It was important to her because it was important to her brother. Inside a marble mausoleum and among impish, interdimensional dwarves carving out eyes was something special.

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(L-R) Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, and A. Michael Baldwin in Phantasm (1979)

Lewis remarked, or better yet questioned, whether his grief would always be that way. Whether grief would be the new permanent phase, one from which he might emerge, but always and forever return. Grief itself, the bottomless well, is an oft-visited topic in horror films. Recently, Relic, The Babadook, and even legacy titles like Pet Sematary have mined the well-trodden soil of grief, of bereavement incarnate, for striking, poignant, and frequently terrifying reflections on what it means to live with loss. So, yes, while grief is a common theme in horror films, it’s uncommon to position grief so squarely within a horror movie. That is, horror not just as a narrative of grief, but a tool for enduring it. 

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The Final Girls, directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, is a sensational movie, one of 2015’s best. Most everything about it is pitch perfect. The casting is inspired, with particular kudos given to Taissa Farmiga, Malin Åkerman, Nina Dobrev, and Angela Trimbur, its exploration of grief is nuanced and buoyant, the gonzo slasher vibes feel authentic and never contrived, never too horror-fan-die-hard labored. It’s a ton of fun, and it’s got Bette Davis Eyes featured prominently on its soundtrack.

Synopsis:
Max, recently orphaned, goes to see a screening of a B-horror movie that her mother made 20 years earlier. When Max and her friends find themselves in the world of the film itself, they must apply their knowledge of horror tropes to survive.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, both on account of a recent rewatch (it holds up remarkably well) and my uncle’s passing. In that specific context, it colloquially hit differently. It resonated in a much deeper, almost physical way. I could feel my body tense and ache. The Final Girls stars Taissa Farmiga as Max Cartwright, one of several young adults transported into the world of the fictional 1986 slasher Camp Bloodbath where her recently deceased mother, Amanda Cartwright (Malin Åkerman), played a prominent role. They’re real people in the world of the movie, and the only way out is to finish the movie, and for that to happens, both killer and counselors, sans the titular final girl, must die. That means Amanda, in the world of Bloodbath, must be killed for Max and her friends to escape.

It’s a profound sentiment packaged in a nostalgia-fueled slasher throwback. Principally a comedy, The Final Girls pauses for mournfulness in spurts, most effectively when Max and her friends hitch a ride to camp and discover Amanda, as counselor Nancy, awakening in the back of the van. The music swells, the frames slow, and Max is adjourned by both grief and euphoria. Her mother is here, and here, she is very much alive.

[Major Spoilers Ahead]

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In a gut-wrenching act of maternal sacrifice, Amanda allows herself to be killed in the film’s final act, cognizant that, without dying, Max could never be the final girl, and only the final girl can kill Billy, the ostensibly immortal behemoth stalking the campgrounds. It’s gimmicky, but it’s highly effective. It’s a painful yet necessary reminder that there is finality in death, but not in the living, breathing memories that came before.

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When you bury your pain and dodge your own grief– grief that so irrevocably belongs to the self– terrible things happen. In those moments, grief truly feels like death. It’s only in letting go and accepting the indissoluble pain of living with loss that you can start to move on. It’s cliché, but it’s true. Perhaps the most painful truth there is. All too often, it’s easier and more comforting to bundle oneself with the pain. So very close and very tight, and vow to never let it go. There are no ghosts without recognition. That frequency of dodging and denial is intoxicating, but it cannot endure forever. It’s untenable.

Horror, in some small way, can untangle the self from the grief. The Final Girls understands this, quite literally. It fashions what is ultimately a tale of letting go around a meta-exercise. Around a deconstruction of ‘80s slasher tropes. And it does so in profoundly curative ways. Horror, even the schlocky blood fests of the 1980s, hold power and the capacity to heal. Even Phantasm, with silver orbs and portals of dwarves, can heal. Because it’s more than just a movie. It’s a vessel to remind us of the people we love most. It’s a filmic screech of remembrance and felicity and fidelity.

Grief might feel so much like fear, but fear is a primal sensation. Fear keeps us safe and urges us away from danger. Fear unites and binds. Whether the moments are small or big, short or long, they matter. I love and miss you, Uncle Rick, and I know mom does, too. The game might be finished, but love and horror endure.