Don Coscarelli Talks about the Origins and Return of Phantasm

Don Coscarelli talks the remastered version of Phantasm, as well as the franchise's final upcoming installment.

It was in 1979 that filmmaker Don Coscarelli brought sci-fi fans one of the genre’s strangest film yet. With the movie Phantasm, he introduced the world to “The Tall Man,” as played by Angus Scrimm, and his deadly bladed flying spheres. Phantasm never really took off in quite the same way as other horror films from around that time like Halloween and Friday the 13th, but it became a cult favorite that spurred Coscarelli to make three sequels between 1988 and 1998.

Fast forward a number of years, and Coscarelli moved onto other things. But he soon learned that the original Phantasm had a fan in none other than Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams, who offered his Bad Robot resources to remaster the movie for an HD rerelease.

Around that same time, Coscarelli decided to return to the series with one final film, Phantasm: Ravager, which would also mark the final movie for Scrimm, who passed away earlier this year. It also gave him a chance to put a final coda on the fan favorite series.

Back in March, Coscarelli first rolled out the HD remastered version of Phantasm at the SXSW Film Festival, and Den of Geek had a chance to get on the phone and chat with him about its origins and restoration.

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Den of Geek: I’ve been a pretty big Phantasm fan, maybe since the early ‘80s, but for one reason or another, I’ve never had a chance to talk to you before this.

Don Coscarelli: Look, it’s been kind of an out of body experience to talk about a movie from several decades ago.

I didn’t originally see it in theaters, so maybe I saw it in a really badly edited late night TV version, or on VHS and other methods later, but what was the environment like in 1979 when you were first making it? Halloween had come out, as had Hills Have Eyes, but Phantasm was so different from those. Were you in touch with any of those other filmmakers?

You know, strangely not. I’d actually met John Carpenter back when he finished his first movie, Dark Star. I went to a screening of that, and that was a long, long time ago, but no, I was not really in touch with any of those guys other than I was going to the movie theater and watching movies like Chainsaw Massacre and Suspiria. I can’t remember if Dawn of the Dead came out… no, I think it came out about the same time.

But at any rate, it was a different time, and it was strangely thrilling experience what the response to Phantasm was back then, mainly because the expectations were so minimal. All I was really hoping to do was devote a cast and crew, we were just hoping to finish this film and get it out into theaters and hopefully get the investment back, and then it just blew up. If you had told me back then that 34 or whatever years later, I’d be on the phone with you talking about the movie for some sort of rerelease, I would have never believed it.

Obviously, losing Angus Scrimm earlier this year was really sad, but what originally inspired that image of the Tall Man? That was one of the things on the posters that really jumped out, and when you see the movie, his presence is unforgettable.

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Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to know where any of those ideas really came from other than there was definitely a goal of mine, which was to make a horror film and try to explore what we called “the American way of death” and to use some of those icons of that from the black hearst to the caskets, and the mausoleums and the funeral homes and the grim undertaker.

That was the intention and to have it be horrifying and to try some shock scares throughout. I think that was basically what I was intending to do, which I think I did. But then I didn’t realize that at the same time, it would have these strange surreal qualities. Some of it was out of necessity due to the budget, and others were just those happy accidents that happen while you’re making a movie.

I think one of the things that made Phantasm stand out were the science fiction elements. It wasn’t outer space sci-fi but there were things going on about other dimensions and things like that, which separated it from the other straight horror movies of the time like Halloween.

I think I was lucky in some respect, because I’m not sure that it was a conscious decision, but maybe a sub-conscious or instinctual idea that I would try to keep the audience off-balance and try to not make the movie predictable, because all of us have watched so much filmed entertainment and television that we know practically every plot scenario where you can pretty much guess when someone opens a door, what’s going to be behind it, because you’ve seen it happen so many times. I guess I had a desire to try to keep it strange, and that’s why I guess I moved into the sci-fi realm.

Maybe it wasn’t until decades later that I started working with writer Joe Lansdale with his Bubba Ho-Tep book. I realized that what Joe was successful at was doing mash-ups, where he would take a comic story about a musician and put him in with a mummy and have a horror edge to it, and also throw in some drama. I thought a lot about that, and then I realized, “Wow, a couple decades earlier on Phantasm, I was basically doing a mash-up where it was sort of a horror movie but then it became fantasy but then it became sci-fi.”

Maybe as a note to aspiring filmmakers out there, mash-ups are a good way to make films that are a little different.

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Even Sam Raimi with the Evil Dead movies, he changed genres with each one, which came out of the Phantasm model. And even Nightmare on Elm Street did that a little.

Yeah, I’m sure that mixing it up is super-important. When they went to the medieval times in Army of Darkness, I was like… that was a big left turn. [Laughs]

You’ve done a bunch of sequels and then went you went off to do Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End. So did working with Joe Lansdale make you want to revisit Phantasm? What made you want to do a fifth movie?

Well, what happened with the new movie was that I was working on Bubba Ho-Tep and then John Dies at the End, and I was working with this guy who was very talented with visual FX, who was an animating director named David Hartman, and what I admired about Dave is that he—unlike me—every weekend, he goes out and makes a short movie, so he really is always practicing his skills.

I would watch him these little shorts. Sometimes he would just have gotten new visual FX software and he’d just go make a movie to test out software. Once he said to me, “Let me make a short film about Phantasm,” and I said, “Why not? That would be cool.”  I got Reggie [Bannister], and we went out and he directed this little piece that was really cool, so I said, “This might be a way that we can make a really interesting Phantasm” sequel and that’s how that one evolved.

With John Dies at the End, you had a movie with a lot of visual FX, so how was it being able to make a Phantasm movie where you had more options to do stuff than you did back in 1979, and even with the sequels?

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Well, on the one hand, it’s just terrific and thrilling to be able to… because there’s some very, very simple visual FX that you can do nowadays, that I would kill to have been able to do 25 years ago. That part of it is great, in terms of just compositing and what have you. But our reach really exceeded grasp in John Dies at the End, because it was so ambitious to try to get some of that stuff on that level of budget. It was like a year solid of work trying to track down different FX artists like a beggar and pay them as little as possible to help me kind of realize some of those FX. But generally, I was happy with how it all came out.’

How did this remastered version of Phantasm come about? Did JJ Abrams reach out to you? Did you have a 35mm print of your own or how did you find it?

It’s a really cool story, because I, at the time, I was working on Bubba Ho-Top, that was almost 13 years ago, and I got a phone call out of the blue from this TV producer who introduced himself, named JJ Abrams, and he said he was a huge Phantasm fan when he was a young guy, and really liked it a lot and wanted to reach out and say, “Hi.” So we talked about it–super nice guy–and he was just starting a new TV series called Alias, and I said, “You should work with one of the Phantasm actors, like Angus or Reggie.”

And he was like, “I’d love to meet Angus” so he met Angus, and he gave Angus a recurring role on “Alias.” Angus always treasured that role. He really treasured his time working with JJ on that, so from time to time, I’d talk to JJ and about a year and a half ago, he called up out of the blue and just had a notion that he wanted to screen Phantasm for his company Bad Robot, for his employees who had not seen it. I said, “That’ll be great,” but all I had was this 35mm print, and I had this standard-def DVD and those were the only two choices. He said, “I can’t believe there hasn’t been an HD version of it out there, but we’ll fix that.”

He had Ben Rosenblatt call me up who is his head of post-production and Ben had this great idea that I could come over to Bad Robot in the evenings, and when they weren’t working on Star Trek or Star Wars, we’d spend a couple hours every night working on it. That started, and over about a year-long period I’d just be a fixture in the evenings, coming over, and those guys would stop working on Star Wars and go to work on Phantasm, which may sound ridiculous, but it was pretty darn cool.

Then when it had been color corrected and cleaned up, and restored, we started from the original camera negatives, so it’s really gorgeous and I was so excited for Phantasm fans who’ve watched these movies. For those guys who have seen the movie a dozen times, I just can’t wait for them to see it, but you gotta’ see it in a theater because you can see the glean in the Tall Man’s eye now. The acting is actually better, because it’s like we’ve been watching that movie with sunglasses on all these years, so it’s really just wonderful.

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Also, to top it off, the icing on the cake, is that there’s a guy named Bobby Sandler, he works with Bad Robot in their audio division who was a big Phantasm fan, and he took on the audio and completely restored the audio, so the sound is so gorgeous now. The music, a lot of it was originally mono and now it’s this rich stereo. If you like that Phantasm score, you’re going to love what they’ve done with it.

Did you still have the original audio tapes to work from?

Yeah, we went back to some original material, and it was a really painstaking process of editing everything we had and enhanced a few FX, always being careful not to go overboard or overdo it. In any case, I’m really hoping that we’re hopefully going to be getting together some theatrical play around the country along with Phantasm: Ravager, so it’s a good time to be a Phantasm fan.

I feel that it’s really hard to find it. I imagine it’s on DVD but it’s not as easy to find as other movies.

No, I know, because they’ve been out of print, so we’re going to go get it out on Blu-ray sometime this year, too.

Phantasm: Remastered and Phantasm Ravager will be both be opening in select cities and be available via Digital HD on Friday, Oct. 7. You can learn more at the Phantasm site.

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