Test Prep is a series of essays that I occasionally write to complement episodes of The Terror Test, a horror podcast. The guys are currently setting up a new website (actually, they are currently on a “monster trip” in Europe, and then they’ll be setting up the new website–I’ll provide links when it goes live). You can hear episodes wherever you listen to podcasts.
Test Prep is an extension of The Terror Test Podcast. This piece is part of the Phantasm and Phantasm II episode.
In the summer of 1991, I lived with my grandparents in Michigan. I had moved to Alabama recently and made a few friends, but didn’t fit in1. I wore Eraserhead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II shirts to school2, collected silent films, and listened to Bach, Jaco, and Carcass. I still loved the Muppets. In eighth grade, because of my height, I was asked to escort high school girls at a local pageant. I declined because a new episode of Twin Peaks was airing that night. I found out years later that some people believed I was a Satanic, homosexual drug dealer. That sounds much more exciting than my reality, which involved staying up late after working at a restaurant, eating pizza rolls and drinking soda while watching movies. However, I was just as likely to watch Harvey as I was Faces of Death.3
Like most teenagers, I was a music junkie, and the first Lollapalooza tour was that summer. Even my grandparents knew about it. They asked if I wanted to go to the concert or to Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors. The thought of standing with my grandfather through a Butthole Surfers set strikes me as particularly funny now, but I chose the horror convention because I wondered if there would ever be another chance for me to meet Tom Savini or The Tall Man from Phantasm.4
Phantasm has always been a favorite horror film of mine. It’s striking and strange like Cronenberg films of the era, but it also has a goofiness that lends it a charm that’s hard to explain. The plot has been called “muddy,” but there are images and sounds that never leave a viewer. The silver spheres, obviously. The zombie dwarves. Reggie. The inter-dimensional portal that looks like a giant tuning fork. The theme!
And then Jebediah Morningside, The Tall Man.
He’s probably entered pop culture consciousness more as an influence on the Slender Man mythos, but Angus Scrimm’s monster is one of my favorites. And thinking about the horror icons of roughly a decade—Leatherface, Pinhead, Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers—The Tall Man is often an afterthought. But unlike the others, he has no mask and little makeup, yet still holds up as a terrifying, supernatural presence. That’s an impressive feat. The scenes of him walking in slow motion probably creeped me out as much as anything else in any other horror film.
I was lucky enough to hear Scrimm give a talk and then have a short conversation with him later that day. Scrimm was warm, sophisticated, generous with his time, and kind. He had scared the hell out of me as kid, but I couldn’t resist talking to him when I saw him walking around the convention. I don’t remember what we talked about5. I know I told him how much I loved the movie and particularly his performance.
Meeting Angus Scrimm was like encountering a character from a Hammer horror film. He was a gentleman who seemed to have stepped out of a time machine, barely escaping some kind of Gothic horror, barely creasing his suit. He was a classic, as many of the friend and fan tributes have affirmed since his death in January.
And speaking of classics, Scrimm6 wrote the back cover notes to Meet the Beatles and won a 1974 Grammy for his Korngold: The Classic Erich Wolfgang Korngold liner notes. He wrote for various entertainment periodicals and Capitol Records, even after his first run as The Tall Man. As a fan and critic, he rented a warehouse for his record collection.
I knew nothing of his music background, but if I had, I would have talked about Bernard Herrmann or Mahler. Instead, embarrassingly, I asked him to “do the voice.” Rather than shrugging off a kid who had overstayed his welcome, his face twisted and he instantly became the malevolent presence at the end of the first film. He bellowed “Boyyyyyy!7” and it was a wonderful mix of fear and joy that washed over me.
Up until that point, he was one of the few adults outside my family who wasn’t judging me and wasn’t condescending or disgusted by my interests. He fully engaged with me, barely a teenager, and made me feel, if not important, at least comfortable with who I was and wanted to be for those few minutes talking to him.
He may be remembered as a monster, but I’ll never forget the man I met that day.
1 That’s not because of Alabama, though that’s part of it. And it was a little more than the normal teenage angst. I moved a lot, my father committed suicide, so I had some things I was working through and would have been wherever I lived.
2 I wore a lot of Three Stooges shirts, too. “Just Say Moe” was a favorite. I was, and still am, a complete dork.
3 I had an obsession with Jimmy Stewart’s films in high school that I still can’t explain. Maybe I just related to him more than someone like Cary Grant.
4 Adolescence would see music win out. I went from wanting to be an amalgam of Harryhausen, Savini, and Romero making Lovecraft films to practicing bass for at least three to seven hours a day.
5 I feel like we discussed a mutual admiration for Poe, since that summer I was reading his collected works and Scrimm was known to recite Poe’s poems from memory.
6 Angus Scrimm was the stage name for Lawrence Rory Guy. He published as “Rory Guy.”
7 Another piece of juvenilia combining horror and music was Mr. Bungle’s “Squeeze Me Macaroni.” It not only sampled Frank Booth, but also The Tall Man. It featured the bass work of Trevor Dunn. He still has a versatility and facility on the instrument that is inspirational, though he’s more often heard on upright these days. Bungle’s Disco Volante is one of my favorite records, but it was not liked in general as much as their debut. I had a high school friend recently ask me if I still listened to music that “sounds like vacuum cleaners” and I suppose I do, so don’t take my advice. Anyway, vacuums, lawn mowers, and weedeaters often sound like Gyuto monks to me. Maybe it’s not always what we listen to, but how we listen.
I like red peppers and Jan Švankmajer movies.
1. Current Listening: Lots of soul from Muscle Shoals
2. Current Viewing: A Hard Day's Night (1964).
3. Current Reading: H.G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet