Originally released in 1979, the cult gem “Phantasm,” about a pair of brothers and an ice cream vendor who run afoul of the mysterious, cemetery-raiding Tall Man, has all the hallmarks of a trippy independent production from that era. It was shot at various Southern California locations over the course of about a year – often on nights and weekends – and featured a cast and crew comprised mostly of friends and aspiring professionals.
Its surreal storyline originated from director Don Coscarelli’s fascination with “the American way of death” and is both creepy and idiosyncratic, what with its packs of snarling, robed hobgoblins and silver metal spheres that fly through the air and violently bore into victims’ foreheads with mechanized knives and drills. And then, of course, there’s that super cool vintage Plymouth Barracuda, which featured prominently in the three sequels that Coscarelli would go on to make.
All four “Phantasm” movies will be screened at the inaugural Big Bear Horror Film Festival this weekend, where Coscarelli, along with the films’ stars, Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister, are to appear in person. Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre caught up with the spooky trio by phone before they made their way north for the weekend events …
GM: How does it feel to realize that 30 years have passed since “Phantasm” was released?
Coscarelli: The goal was just to finish the movie and get it out in a few theaters. To think that decades later people would still be thinking and talking about it, I could have never imagined.
Scrimm: What’s surprising is that one film has so saturated my life all these years! From the very beginning it was such a huge success. I was just looking over my clippings from ’79 – it opened at No. 1 in Paris at the box office and [in] one clipping I have it was still No. 1 after five weeks. I believe it was the top hit in Paris all summer and in Hong Kong and Japan and London. It was just a phenomenon. I was just titillated to get fan mail from Europe, I, who had never had a fan letter. I still get letters from odd places like Poland. New Jersey seems to be the center of horror fandom. Most of my mail has always come from New Jersey.
Bannister: By the time it came out, I was working at nights playing music, but my day job was at a place called Sunnyside in Long Beach. It’s a cemetery/mortuary/mausoleum. I delivered flowers for them. We actually shot some stuff for “Phantasm” there. I just answered an ad and it turned out to be this place that we’d shot at and I had family interred there. I remember there was a drive-in theater on this corner where I used to go to this gas station to fill up my van. I remember standing there and filling up my flower delivery van and looking over at this marquee and it said “Phantasm.” Here I am pumping gas into my delivery van while I’m being a star on the screen, the irony.
GM: Where did the idea for the film come from?
Coscarelli:I had a compunction to try to do something in the horror genre and I started thinking about how our culture handles death; it’s different than in other societies. We have this central figure of a mortician. He dresses in dark clothing, he lurks behind doors, they do procedures on the bodies we don’t know about. The whole embalming thing, if you ever do any research on it, is pretty freaky. It all culminates in this grand funerary service production. It’s strange stuff. It just seemed like it would be a great area in which to make a film.
GM: What was the budget of the movie?
Coscarelli: I think maybe $300,000. It was never actually known because there were no accountants. We didn’t know what we were spending. But it was done on very modest means. It was shot with friends and students, and yet for some reason the movie has had this impact on people. I certainly never could have foreseen how that would happen, but it’s probably a combination of that aforementioned embalming and funeral stuff that preys on people’s psyches. But it also has to do with this performance from Angus Scrimm as this strange and bizarre undertaker. He brought a level of intensity and strangeness to this character.
GM: You previously had worked with Angus, under the name Rory Guy, on your first film, 1976′s “Jim, the World’s Greatest.” You must have had some sense of what he would bring to the character.
Coscarelli: I really didn’t have any idea that he would take it to the level that he did. He always wore his hair to the side, but his hair was combed back and his cheeks were hollowed out and he glared at me in the mirror and did the raised eyebrow thing, I could see it was going to be a very powerful character. It’s one of the coolest things about directing, really. You’re like the first audience for elements of the movie and when something wonderful like a performance is evolving you’re the first one to see it.
GM: Angus, were you an aficionado of horror films?
Scrimm: I had grown up admiring William Powell and Cary Grant and I wanted to do suave drawing room comedy but they sort of stopped doing suave drawing room comedy after the ’30s and ’40s. I became very fond of horror films at the age of 12, the age when my parents decided I was old enough to see them. That was the year, coincidentally, that Universal re-released “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” on a double bill. I saw those and was immediately hooked. I spent a year or two seeing every old re-release that came out like “The Old Dark House” and all the James Whales, of which there weren’t nearly enough, and Tod Brownings. After my college years, I disdained horror for a decade or more and wouldn’t see anything that didn’t come from Europe.
I was intrigued and kind of delighted in the most improbable situation, the British Encyclopedia of Horror printed a book with a little thumbnail sketch in which I was alluded to as — this is a decade or more ago — as a minor American horror icon. So I wrote them a letter and I said, I’m so grateful to be listed at all, and I realize at my age I’m not apt to attain the record of a [Boris] Karloff or a [Bela] Lugosi, but if I manage before my end to make another two or three significant horror films do you think I might be up to a middling horror icon? I never got a letter. I think they’re still pondering it.
GM: Did you have a lot of input into the character of the Tall Man?
Scrimm: Don and I pretty much decided that he did represent death, but not a lot [of input]. I think one of the first scenes we did was the Tall Man’s encounter at the beginning of the picture with the older brother when he startles him in the cemetery by clapping his hand on his shoulder. Don had almost choreographed that himself. He gave me the line reading. He gave me everything. As we went on, he began to trust my instincts and I made a stronger contribution. …
[Scrimm:] … My approach is always to just bury my nose in the script. In this case, there was very little dialogue. The Tall Man, I counted, I think he had about six or seven very terse lines throughout the picture, one of which was the famous, “Boy.” I’m always asked to recite that line. I find that if I know the script thoroughly when I walk in front of the camera, the character just sort of takes over. I don’t know how that happens but it works for me. So the Tall Man pretty much invented himself. Don’s mother designed the costume and the makeup for the Tall Man and that contributed enormously. It was a very restrained makeup but the wardrobe — she, without seeking permission, took one of her husband’s black mohair suits and took it to a local tailor, I think it was Benny the tailor in Long Beach, and had him cut it down to sort of stovepipe arms and lengths and narrowed the width of the coat so that the Tall Man looked quite skinny. Then they got me shoes with two inch lifts that I wore throughout, so the makeup and wardrobe contributed a great deal.
GM: What about you, Reggie?
GM: What about you, Reggie?
Bannister: He wrote the character of Reggie to be the really, really good friend, the guy who would throw his body on the flames of hell to save somebody that he loved. He just gave the character my name.
GM: And is it true that the film was shot all around L.A.?
Coscarelli: For the exterior of our mortuary we went up to Oakland to this place called the Dunsmuir Mansion, which is just a beautiful old Victorian place. We shot a little town sequence down south in Julian, California, but most of it was shot out in the San Fernando Valley in Chatsworth.
GM: How long was the shoot?
Coscarelli: Years, literally. I think that’s why the movie is unique. We tried to shoot it like a regular film, but we were a little disorganized, budget-wise and logistics-wise. Consequently we stopped and started filming on weekends, and we’d take a period off and try to get ready for the next set of filming. Then also I was editing the movie while I was shooting it. It gave us a way to shoot economically and yet at the same time experiment. If scenes weren’t working or the effects weren’t working we would go back and redo them. It was probably a full year of production, probably another six months to eight months of post-production.
GM: What changed over the course of that year?
Coscarelli: We shot like five different endings, which was pretty interesting. It originally had a very traditional ending but it didn’t seem like that was going to work. Then I came up with an idea where we would really have a very shocking ending where the characters would just drive off at the end, and that didn’t exactly work. Then there was an elaborate ending that we shot – the footage wasn’t used in “Phantasm” but we were able to work it into the fourth “Phantasm,” where the brothers hung the Tall Man from a tree. Then finally I came up with the one that we ended the film with, which was just a very direct one in which the audience was lulled into thinking it was a dream and the Tall Man wins and that’s the end. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re not under the strictures or the rigors of any kind of financial entity. The film was pretty much financed with people who were doctors and lawyers. It was a number of independent people who put up a small amount so there was no creative pressure. I haven’t had that kind of freedom since, truthfully.
GM: Do you remember what the atmosphere on the set was like?
Coscarelli:There was a lot of excitement because we were taking a lot of risks. Filmmaking can really be fun and very physical. There’s a lot of gun play in the movie and we weren’t necessarily cognizant of the fact that blank shells could be dangerous. There’s a whole sequence where one of the brothers is shooting a shotgun, and it didn’t hit my face but it lit my jacket on fire. No one ever did get hurt so we can all look back on it pleasantly.
Bannister: I remember one night [Don] called me at this place that I was playing music in called the West Coast Bodega in Belmont Shore. I was actually managing the music there so I had to stay until the club closed, and he goes, yeah, we’ve got to shoot tonight. I go, dude, I’m not going to be out of there until 2 a.m. He said, that’s all right, we’ll send a car. We would end up in the mountains somewhere putting Tommy in the back of the ice cream truck — Tommy, our best friend who became a dwarf. It was a seat-of-our-pants kind of thing. That’s real independent filmmaking. We would make up dialogue as we would go at various times. He’d show me some sides and he’d go, here’s what I’ve got Reggie saying. Do you think that works for that character? I’d go, yeah, but I think he’d say this, this and that. He’d go, yeah man, really that’s cool. We would shoot it that way and it ended up in the picture.
Scrimm: I just remember [producer] Paul Pepperman calling me at 3 a.m. and saying, “OK, we’re ready for you now, you can drive out to Long Beach?” There was lots of nighttime driving.
GM: Where did the Barracuda come from?
Coscarelli: I tracked it down. When I was in high school there was a kid who was a year younger than me who somehow bought one of those cars and would drive it through the parking lot. I would stand there with my friends and we would salivate over this car. It was a beautiful Plymouth ‘Cuda and it had a white interior and it was green. It was really hot with the pistol-grip shifter. He’d roar out of that parking lot. And then I was cobbling together this horror movie and for some reason I thought, oh, the brothers will drive one of those ‘Cudas! It will give me a chance to get my hands on one.
Back in the day the price of those cars was dropping because the price of gas was starting to go up and the insurance costs were too high. We bought it off a kid who wanted to get rid of it. We cleaned it up and fixed it up and then it became this icon in the movie that we were able to carry through in the subsequent “Phantasms.” Unfortunately after the film was over, it was sold to somebody and I think it was wrecked and it’s just disappeared off the face of the Earth.
GM: How would you explain the enduring appeal of “Phantasm” and its sequels?
Coscarelli: It took me a number of years to realize that there’s a massive fan base of young men who saw the film when they were 10 to 13 years old. It has an effect on other demographics but I can’t tell you how often I’ve been at screenings or conventions and people come up and say, I saw that movie when I was 13 years old and I never have forgotten it. I think a lot of it had to do with the boy who had this lifestyle – he was semi-orphaned living with his brother. He drove the brother’s car, shot the guns, drove the motorcycle and then he basically had to try to rid the town of this alien infestation, if you will.
Scrimm: The film resonated deeply with 13-year-old boys. It seemed to give expression to all their insecurities and fears. It is about a teenage boy who’s lost his dad, his mom and his older brother, and I think the whole story is his coping with this great loss by fantasizing about death and this ominous figure who strides through your life quite unpredictably and more than decimates it. It dealt in a very entertaining way with a subject that haunts all of us at the back of our minds.
Bannister: Some of it is, I think, the feeling of family that was created in the first picture. It’s like the two brothers, they lost their mother and father and I’m like their best friend. The bonding feel and atmosphere of that film, and the small-town thing as well … it created a claustrophobic feel, very scary. Beyond that I think that possibly “Phantasm” created the first paradigm that used that dream logic so well where you think you know what’s going on but you really don’t and then you wake up but you’re not sure you’re awake. That’s endearing.
GM: Have you been approached by people who are interested in remaking the film?
Coscarelli: I get a phone call every week, it seems, from somebody who wants to do it. It’s something I’ve been resisting for a while. I do think that, given the proper context, it would really be exciting to see what a younger filmmaker could bring to that story. It’s something I’m open to but I guess I’m seeking the right circumstances. Takashi Miike doing “Phantasm,” how would that be? Anything that would ever be done would have to be done with sensitivity to the appreciation that the fans have for it. They just worship Angus as the Tall Man and Reggie as the loyal trusted friend.
GM: Would you like to make another sequel yourself?
GM: Would you like to make another sequel yourself?
Coscarelli: It’s something we’ve talked about through the years but the timing hasn’t worked out or getting the finances exactly right. I’ve been cooking up a couple of incarnations of things that I can’t talk about now but hopefully in the near future we could get something in the “Phantasm” world happening.
Scrimm: I’d jump at it. I’m a little protective of the Tall Man. I’d be reluctant to make a “Phantasm” that wasn’t up to the other four. I think it’s a very good quartet of motion pictures. If we did another picture it would need to be just as original and just as sparkling in its ideas and freshness as the first and as the subsequent ones. That would be the deterrent and then of course getting it financed in today’s filmplace would be a challenge.
Bannister: Hopefully we’ll get to do one more before everybody croaks.
GM: Are you looking forward to the screenings this weekend?
Coscarelli: There’s something fitting about it. Big Bear is where I wrote the script to “Phantasm” decades ago — I went up there to get away from things so I’ll have to go find where that little cabin is when I’m up there. I haven’t watched them in sequence since 2000; down in Austin there was this thing called Phantasmania where they played them. It was really strange to watch them in sequence. There’s a strange continuity that is actually there that I forgot about.
Bannister: People that love horror are kind of like a family. When I go to conventions and appearances, it’s like … talking to family.
The Big Bear Horror Film Festival will screen “Phantasm” (1979) on Saturday at 5 p.m., immediately followed by a discussion with Reggie Bannister and the screening of “Phantasm II: The Ball is Back” (1988). “Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” (1993) will show on Sunday at 11 a.m., followed by “Phantasm IV: Oblivion” (1998) at 12:30 p.m. For a complete event schedule visit the festival’s website or call (323) 604-9874.
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“Phantasm” images: New Breed Productions Inc.