By Joseph McCabe
Don Coscarelli?s got the magic touch.
Try as they might, most directors aren?t lucky or talented enough to create one successful film franchise. But, over the years, Coscarelli?s managed to fashion three, starting with the cult hits Phantasm, Beastmaster and Bubba Ho Tep.
Since this week sees the release of two of his four Phantasm films on DVD, including a new remastering of the original hit film (as part of the Anchor Bay Collection)?as well as his non-horror thriller Survival Quest starring fan favorite Lance Henriksen?FEARnet thought it would be an ideal time to sit down and chat with Coscarelli himself about the past, present and future of his undying sagas.
Where did the initial idea for Phantasm come from?
Well, let?s see? I was always a big fan of horror movies. Anything sci-fi/fantasy/horror I loved as a boy. I?d made a couple of films that were not in the genre. I?d made a drama and then a comedy. You know, honestly, neither of those films had much impact, and I got this idea in my head. Somewhere I had heard that horror movies were always successful and commercial. I thought, ?Well, you know, I like horror movies. They?re commercial. Why don?t I try to make one?? There was one other inspiration. I?ve told this story, but it?s very true. I had this film Kenny and Company that had these kids. There?s a scene in a haunted house and we have this monster jump out. The first time I saw it with an audience, the audience shot out of their seats. It was a pretty amazing impact for a young filmmaker to have. So that really was exciting, and something that I wanted to try.
But it was just a function of looking around for subject matter to do in the genre. It was just putting together several influences from movies that I had liked; and at the same time kind of hanging it all on an investigation of the American way of death, which is really strange and bizarre, in how we treat the whole process of dying and funerals and all of that. It hadn?t really been done in a movie so much. There?d been The Body Snatcher with Karloff, and things like that, but nobody had really done just a straight story that took place in a funeral home. Then it was just a function of letting my mind go and trying to come up with some strange and creepy encounters in that situation. The story just evolved out of that.
The last point?this is very long-winded!?would be that I started to look around to the actors that I knew. I?d worked with a lot of the actors in Phantasm on previous movies, and I just started creating roles for those actors. I?d worked with Michael Baldwin?he was just a great child actor?and of course I?d worked with Reggie Bannister in two other movies; and I?d worked with Angus Scrimm in one of them. It all came together that way.
Phantasm also seems inspired by horror movies like Don?t Look Now and books like Something Wicked This Way Comes. But at the same time it?s very different. It?s not a film that?s easy to pigeonhole.
That?s true. I had a vast array of influences. But those are interesting ones that you bring up. Don?t Look Now is just a terrific movie, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, the book, absolutely. Because after I made Kenny and Company?it?s interesting that you saw that?Reggie Bannister had actually given me a copy of that book and said, ?We should make this a movie.? And I was thinking about getting the two kids from Kenny and Company. But the rights weren?t available. Then I went down the path of Phantasm. So I owe a debt to Ray Bradbury there.
Is it true that the inspiration for the film?s spheres came to you in a dream?
That is absolutely true. I had had a dream a long time ago. It was about being pursued down long corridors by this chrome sphere. It really didn?t do the kinds of things that we did in the movie. I mean, it never caught me. So I don?t know what it did. It was just a function of looking for some kind of a strange first encounter for the boy, what that would be. I just seized on using that idea?that there were these sentinels in the hallways that were on the lookout for people who weren?t supposed to be there.
How did the Phantasm sequels come about?
It is an interesting path. I envisioned the original movie as just a one off. I never imagined there being a sequel, because I never imagined there?d be any desire for a sequel [laughs]. When we made the film, it was on such modest means, and to think that anybody would want to see further adventures of it was completely an alien concept to me. Then when the film was successful in its theatrical run, there was a lot of pressure and a lot of suggestions to make another Phantasm. I tried to resist that for a while. And I went off and did this Beastmaster movie. After that?it wasn?t a very pleasant experience?I was thinking about what a great time I had on Phantasm. So the idea of a sequel just sounded... Because I could work with actors that I really liked and do things that I enjoyed, which is of course horror. But I always had this creative block?how to do the sequel. The simple breakthrough for me came one day; it popped into my head that I would start the sequel the second after the first movie ended, and if that was case, what happened? How?d the Tall Man get into his house? Where was Reggie? Answering those questions was fun for me, and suddenly the script just evolved. Going onto Phantasm III, that was really a function of? I had two desires, one I succeeded at, and one?probably not my first desire?was to in a way write things by bringing Michael Baldwin back into the franchise. I really didn?t feel that that was right, what had happened to him. I felt bad about it afterwards, and I thought, ?Oh, I gotta do another sequel??the funding of course had been offered??Well, what would I do? Well, it would be great to bring Michael back. That would be really cool and different. You don?t usually see that in franchises.? I also thought, ?Well, let?s explore and explain more about the spheres and all this kind of thing.? I?m not sure I really succeeded there; it seems like there were more questions. But I did try to open it up a little bit and I got some resistance from the fans at first, with some of those other characters. We had some zombie characters and a new kid in the thing. But I think that the resistance, to my mind, came from the fact that they thought it was the last Phantasm. Now that people see it was just another installment, then they?re much more complimentary about Phantasm III. Then Phantasm IV was just a function of?I had some time available and I had some funding available. See, what always happens after these Phantasm movies is, I probably develop two or three projects and then go out and try to get funding for them and have no luck. Then I come back and somebody calls up and says, ?We?d like to see another Phantasm movie and we?ll put up some money.? So it?s a blessing and a curse.
The third film is now out on DVD. Is there any chance we might see the second film surface in the near future?
I?m sure there is. I don?t have any inside knowledge about it. Universal is a big monolith over there, and it?s hard to know what they?re up to. They have so many movies to bring out on DVD, and I just don?t think they?re immediately looking at all their movies with roman numerals attached to them right now. So that certainly is something that I?m going to have to try to get some information on, and see what their plans are.
That?d be great. Because there are so many fans that love the second film.
That?s nice of you to say. It?s got a lot of great action, and it?d be nice to see it come out finally. But it was exciting to get Phantasm III finally, because it?d never been released on DVD either. And also the fact that we were able to go back and use the unrated version, which is fun.
Could you explain the differences between the rated and unrated version?
It?s mostly in the sphere and the bloodletting sequence. An interesting thing that happened with the Motion Picture Association is when we made Phantasm II and Phantasm III, it was a much more restrictive time. They were not allowing the geysers of blood like they do nowadays. I guess there had been a few parents that had written into the MPAA after Phantasm came out, and criticized the bloodletting in that. It?s my opinion that the Motion Picture Association wanted to punish us, and cut any bloodletting from the sphere sequence. The interesting part about that is they managed to?in both Phantasm II and Phantasm III?for lack of a better term they eviscerated the sphere scenes, but they didn?t care about anything else. In Phantasm III we have a thirteen-year-old kid that shoots a zombie right in the forehead with a magnum. No, they don?t care about that. But one drop of blood coming out of the sphere? Gotta cut it! So it was a nightmarish process for me because even on Phantasm III I tried to use a little logic with them, because I?d been so hacked with Phantasm II. So what I did with Phantasm III is, we had a sphere bloodletting scene, similar to the one in part 1, so I thought, ?Well, we got an R rating in that one. So, for part 3, I?ll go in and I?ll cut it exactly frame for frame the same length. Same angles as Phantasm I.? Of course they wouldn?t allow it and I actually went into this protest meeting with the ratings board appeals committee and have the state make this legal presentation and case for it. I thought it was pretty effective, and I did get a majority vote in my favor, but it requires two thirds to overturn the ruling. So the deck was stacked against it and it got cut. But it?s all back in the new addition.
Could you comment on rumors of a Phantasm sequel?
One would think that after making four movies of Phantasm, it would be enough for one lifetime. That being said, I love working with these actors. I?m definitely interested in another one. I?d actually thought that part 4 pretty well wrapped it all up, but I?ve been notified by fans that there are still a few loose ends that need to be explained. We actually have a script that I like a lot. It?s something that I really hope to do some time in the near future. I?m a little tied up right now, because I?ve been working on the Bubba Ho Tep sequel, which looks like it?s really coming together now. I know Angus [Scrimm] has just been cast in a few movies, so he?ll be busy for the next few months. I don?t know if it?s gonna happen right away, but it?s definitely something we?re interested in talking about.
There?s also been speculation about a remake.
As far as the remake, it?s hard to say. We were contacted by a number of people, but it just didn?t feel right. Seeing as how Phantasm is probably the only legitimate franchise that hasn?t been remade yet, except for maybe Evil Dead, from that period. They?ve remade almost every one of them. Some of them have been really good, but other ones I haven?t been too keen on. I?m a little worried about that. I guess the idea is maybe there could be one, but I don?t really know now.
One of your non-Phantasm films was also just released on DVD?Survival Quest. How did that movie come about?
It?s funny. Shifting gears? I went backpacking. I really liked it a lot. I like the outdoors, and it was an outgrowth of that. I wrote a little story, and it got a little jumbled up in the process of making the film, because I had some investors. I think I started off to make it more of a character development piece and then the investors suggested it needed a little more edge to it. So it?s an interesting movie in that it had a lot of interesting things. And some things I prefer I could go back and fix. But that being said it had a terrific cast. Probably the most remarkable thing about it is? I just think Lance Henriksen?s a terrific actor, and I think at that time I was very proud to feature him in a heroic role, because he just hadn?t really had many opportunities like that. He?d been pigeonholed as bad guys and evil characters always. He did so well for us in the film, and I think if you see him in that Millennium TV show later, he really looked great. But, yeah, the other cast, Catherine Keener, in her first movie?and she met her future husband Dermot Mulroney, a great actor. Both of them were wonderful to work with. A couple of other interesting actors?Steve Antin and Paul Provenza, who?s now a big successful movie director with his Aristocrats last year. But, yeah, interesting film. It was fun to put together that new remastering of it.
You mentioned Bubba Nosferatu?where are you right now with that project?
The screenplay is finished. It?s great. I?m very happy with it. It expands the storyline of the character. It gives plenty of opportunities for Elvis to continue kicking undead ass. And it also explores more young Elvis than the original did. We cover both periods of his life. But focus a little more on 1973 and some really crazy events that went down in Elvis?s career at that time.
So the script is done. We have a lot of interest in the funding. And I?m just nailing down this week how it?s going to be made. So I fully anticipate shooting it this year. That?s my goal. It will be called Bubba Nosferatu with the subtitle Curse of the She- Vampires. There will be many she-vampires, so it?s gonna be fun. It?s definitely cool.
One of the many things that?s interesting about the Bubbas and the Phantasms is how they blend horror with either fantasy or science fiction. Do you prefer that blend to pure, straight horror?
Well, as a fan I like it all generally. But my guiding focus?and I think it was good at the time?was that I wanted to make something unexpected. One of the things that came early on was the idea of shifting, sliding, taking left turns into different genres every once in a while?a little sci-fi here, a little fantasy here, hit ?em with some horror, back to some fantasy? It?s a good thing, and it makes the movie work. I think over time what I?ve really learned, and I would say my favorite mantra, is with horror films the ones that are most effective is where, as an audience member, you feel like you?re losing control, like you really don?t know where this is going. I think that came to me probably back from The Exorcist, because every time that priest went up those stairs to that bedroom, you just didn?t know what was going to be on the other side of that door. And that was a big influence on me.
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your schedule to chat with us today.
My pleasure! Thank you.