By Donna Marie Miller.
For 35 years fantasy screenwriter and director Don Coscarelli has garnered a cult following for his 1979 horror film, Phantasm, and its four sequels: Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994,) Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998,) and Phantasm V: Ravager (2014.) The low-budget movies featured the late Angus Scrimm as the antagonistic Tall Man, who in Phantasm inhabits a creepy mausoleum and chases the 13-year-old protagonist, Mike Pearson, portrayed by Michael Baldwin.
At this year’s South-by-Southwest Interactive, Film and Music Festival, Coscarelli screened a remastered version of his original movie, to the delight of his fans. Doing so, Coscarelli introduced a new generation to his innovations in video and sound that in 1979 seemed years ahead of their time.
Creative Screenwriting talked with Coscarelli about writing sequels, why the time is right for a re-release of Phantasm, and writing when not writing.
You wrote the cult classic Phantasm 37 years ago. There are four sequels currently, did you originally envision it as a series?
You know, truthfully, no. I always looked at it as having a pretty finite ending. I guess it’s OK to have spoilers now that the movie’s been out for several decades, but obviously the kid loses—Tall Man wins, game over.
There was a long gap there—I think it was like nine years—before the first sequel came out. Being a young filmmaker I wanted to distinguish myself in other genres, but the other part of it was that I didn’t know how to approach a sequel. I just didn’t.
I know this might sound just lame, but one day it came to me. The kid got yanked into the mirror, but he had left Reggie downstairs. What was going on downstairs? Reggie hears this crash and he could run upstairs and take it from there.
So it was that simple breakthrough that made me realize I could write a whole story now. Then also, there was an idea to go into a new direction. Rather than be contained in the one claustrophobic town, it would then become almost a road movie. A few years later Reggie would team up with the Mike who was older and they would go on an adventure to track down and kill the Tall Man once and for all. So, once I had that in mind, it was a pretty straight shot to make that sequel movie.
At the time of Phantasm’s original release you stated in an interview that you were curious about how our culture handles death. That led you to create the mysterious grave robber and antagonist, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) as death dressed in a tight-fitting suit, wearing lifts on his shoes. However, what does the Lady in Lavender represent to you?
Well, I think from my perspective now—and I’m not telling you I had all these answers when I made the movie, because certainly it evolved over time—when I first started filming Phantasm, the Lady in Lavender and the Tall Man were two completely distinct and separate characters. He turns into her, but I didn’t have that idea or make that decision until well into production. It was a feeling that they were two partial characters and this idea that I could fuse the two of them made it so much stranger and so much more bizarre, so it was what we did.
Now that I do look back on it—I have to tell you that some of this has come through analysis from fans that have told me about things, about their interpretations of the movie—I do see it now that a big chunk of the movie is about this adolescent boy and he has lost his brother.
Maybe as Mike is maturing, the Lady in Lavender could have been a fear of sex. It could have been a fear of losing his brother to a woman, which is the natural course when a brother gets married and moves away.
So those were the levels of anxiety. The funny thing about it is, I did write an ending that we never shot where Mike woke up and he was going to his brother’s wedding and his brother was marrying the Lady in Lavender. The Tall Man was going to be presiding at the wedding, but it didn’t seem at the time as the right way to go.
Which films influenced you, growing up?
There were a lot of influences, many, many. I wanted to make a movie that was set in a funeral home or graveyard. I just felt fascinated with that setting, the mausoleum. I grew up in a town south of Los Angeles, in a town called Long Beach and there was a magnificent, gigantic marble mausoleum that when you walk around in it was so bizarre and so creepy, and that was a trigger for a great setting for the movie. At the same time, I had just finished a film about children, Kenny & Company, with this great actor Michael Baldwin, so I was thinking about a young boy’s focus movie.
One of the movies that really freaked me out when I was young that played on television all of the time was called Invaders from Mars, (a 1953 film written by Richard Blake and directed by William Cameron Menzies.) Really freaky stuff, but at the same time it is essentially about a little boy who has seen something and no one believes him. So that was a really important theme that I thought could work.
Then there were some peripheral influences; I really liked Something Wicked This Way Comes (written by Ray Bradbury in 1962,) where this dark character comes into town, which probably gave some influence to the creation of the figure the Tall Man.
There were other things, some strange sci-fi movie aspects that came out of (Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film,) 2001: A Space Odyssey. That whole whiteness of those Odyssey scenes maybe influenced me.
I took elements from the movies that I grew up watching and made something bizarre out of them.
How did you come up with the idea for the unique weapon, a silver orb that flies through the air and attacks its victims with mini dagger-like spears?
That is probably the only idea that I put on film today that came out of a dream. When I was much younger I remember having a dream and being pursued by a floating orb. It didn’t have any of the mechanical stuff that showed up in later movies—that came later.
I just had a vision of it chasing me around in this nightmare. It kind of stuck with me. For some reason when Phantasm went into this bizarre science fiction direction, it just seemed natural that we could do that.
Why is the timing of this re-release of Phantasm so perfect for today’s audiences?
In some respects Phantasm is eternal because it has a lot to do with the questions of death and what happens when you die and the Grim Reaper and all that sort of thing. I think that the thing about this remastering process is that we are showing the movie in the best possible way. I’m just hoping that we can get it into as many theatrical venues as possible so that folks can enjoy it on the big screen—both the sound and visuals.
I think that in terms of ‘why now?’ probably the best reason would be with the recent passing of Angus Scrimm that this movie really is a testament to him in a lot of ways and it shows him off to his best advantage. We can just look at it as a tribute to him now that we’ve lost him. He was the first adult actor that I had ever worked with and I developed a good friendship with him over a lot of years.
When Phantasm came out, in 1979 or 1980, the distributor sent the two of us all over the country publicizing the movie. That was back when Angus would go out in his costume; he would wear his Tall Man outfit. He would put his own makeup on and he would go to interviews and make appearances on television in it. It was just crazy. In any case, I think that the fans will really enjoy being able to see him do his thing in the best way possible.
Phantasm explores the fear of death from a boy’s perspective. Did you draw on your own childhood experiences at all?
We all go through this, but one day I realized that I was going to die and I couldn’t believe it. I think I was about six or seven years old. It was mortifying. I remember lying in bed one night and thinking: ‘oh my God, my mother’s gonna die, my father’s gonna die, I’m gonna die;’ you know? It was pretty frightening actually.
Obviously it’s the great question that sticks with all of us to this day. You think about the gigantic worldwide religions that have been developed pretty much to explain away what happens when we die. It’s probably the core question: ‘I’m going to die; what does that mean? Why?’ So I’m sure a lot of it came out of that, being this unanswerable question and potentially terrifying.
Creating a character like Tall Man who is essentially the embodiment of death and pursuing a young kid, probably comes from something like that. Probably a more practical idea came from trying to find a venue to make a movie that would offer some good jump scares on its base level. I remember my grandfather died, but he had been living in St. Louis, Missouri, which was half a country away. So it wasn’t really up close and personal. President Kennedy got shot when I was a kid; I think I was like in fourth grade or something like that.
You also wrote the screenplay, Bubba Ho-Tep, (2002) an adaptation of the short story by Joe R. Lansdale. Both JFK and Elvis are alive in nursing homes and they fight to save their fellow residents from an ancient Egyptian mummy. What did you like most about writing that screenplay?
It was Joe’s basic storyline, which was wonderful, but we really tried to play both characters—I know this sounds ridiculous—but we tried to play them both with dignity. As ridiculous as Elvis was, he had a lot of good qualities: he loved his mother, he was kind and respectful to most people, and we tried to treat him with respect. The same thing with our Kennedy character, even though he didn’t necessarily look like Kennedy, we always wanted to keep him very presidential.
Yet, Kennedy had a sense of humor about him and that’s why Ossie Davis played him that way in that movie. Think about it. There’s that crazy line in the movie where Davis says “but I have been dyed black.” You almost think that the real Kennedy, if he had been dyed black, would make a joke about it. It’s so ridiculous; there is a sense of humor about it.
Here you have these men who were at the top of the world and then as they grew older in age they were marginalized and basically warehoused to die. Which I hate to tell you is the fate that we all have in front of us if we live too long, you know?
That’s a real horror story, but we tried to humanize them as much as possible with Elvis lamenting about the loss of a relationship with a daughter. That would be a catastrophic thing to have happen to you. That whole thing about JFK saying ‘well, we did the best we could under the circumstances.’ It’s ridiculous, but it’s also strangely moving. You know? So, as Joe, the writer, used to say when he talked about the story, he said he always saw it as ‘ride the high country in a walker and a wheel chair,’ kind of going out in a blaze of glory.
You also wrote the screenplay for John Dies in the End (2012), based on the story by David Wong. It also dealt with traveling across time and dimensions to save the world.
What I liked was that the book was about perception and how even in our normal every day reality there are contradictions all around us. The writer who wrote that book was really brilliant. He would write these strange bits of philosophy into that and maybe I was crazy to try to keep it in, but I remember there is this one character (Roger North) played by Doug Jones who is from an altered dimension.
He’s talking about how bees work their whole lives for the service of men and he asks do they really understand what they’re doing? Then the other guy talks about there being strange things all around us like the radio waves; you can’t see them but they’re there. This whole idea that there are levels of reality and perception, and of course with both of us having grown up in the age of LSD and all that about expanding your mind, there was a lot of interesting commentary in that book that really appealed to me.
Then it’s all told as an adventure from these two slackers and there’s a lot of raw humor in it too. Do you remember when we were in high school, everybody was reading Carlos Castaneda’s books and people were taking peyote buttons and mushrooms to try to have out-of-body experiences? That’s sort of gone away. People don’t take drugs for those types of purposes anymore.
How do you get into your writing mindset?
There’s no question that music has a way of focusing and tuning you creatively. Sometimes it’s about finding the right music at the right time. You’re thinking of the right problem and you’ll have one of those ‘aha’ breakthroughs. So there’s something to it.
The whole idea of sitting at a table and just coming up with something is very hard to do it that way. Usually, when you’re doing your household stuff—you’re vacuuming, or walking the dog—something suddenly hits you. Something clicks. You think, ‘oh he could do that and that.’ Basically you’re doing the writing right at that moment, but you’re not writing. You’re doing other stuff. So then the writing’s easy.
Once you have those things, then you go back and transcribe it all down and sort of organize it. Lately, I’ve been using a phone app. It works really nicely because if you can get through the menus and get to it quickly enough you can record your ideas, but then it’s a bit of a challenge to transcribe it. You have to go through and you have to listen to every idea in the transcript, then go through and sort of edit it. Sometimes it’s more work in that respect. It’s a great way to get from your head to paper. Carrying around a pen and paper is really a hard way to access your ideas, but everyone has a phone in their pocket.
The composers for the Phantasm movies were ahead of their time.
Absolutely, but that really came about because those two composers, Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave were firmly grounded in classical music. That’s where they came from. They learned about orchestra and orchestration, but then when I met them they were just starting to produce rock bands. So they really had a fusion of both genres. They had the music chops, but they also knew what was new in that respect.
We ended up with these gorgeous thematic moments, even using choral voices. Also, we used some strange instrumentation and percussions. A lot of stuff they did was experimental where they would take a drumstick and scrape it across a cymbal or something. There was a lovely scene where we used Meinl Tabla drums, which I have started to see used more often now. It was a very different time. We were all listening to Pink Floyd and Vangelis. You know, that kind of stuff. It was great.