‘Phantasm’ director Don Coscarelli on the ‘blessing and curse’ of his cult horror series

Angela Weiss/Getty Images for AFI

Though he was just 25 years old when Phantasm hit theaters, many don't know that the cult 1979 horror film was actually director Don Coscarelli's third movie. In fact, at the age of 19, he became the youngest director ever to have a film distributed by a major studio (a statistic that's often been alleged but which I cannot independently confirm) when Universal acquired his teen drama Jim, the World's Greatest for distribution.

That film, which was financed by Coscarelli's father — who put up the money for production after having “a good year in the stock market,” in Coscarelli's words — landed the teenage filmmaker and his co-director Craig Mitchell an office on the studio's lot to finish the movie. It was an unusually auspicious Big Hollywood start to a career that ended up taking a less-mainstream turn as the years went on. “I've been working my way downward ever since,” Coscarelli joked when I sat down with him last week to talk about the 4K restoration Phantasm: Remastered and Phantasm Ravager, the fifth installment in the long-running series. “That was the pinnacle of my career at 19.”

Of course, it wasn't. After directing Kenny & Company — another youth-oriented film in the vein of his debut that was distributed to little avail by 20th Century Fox — Coscarelli set to work on Phantasm, which he rightly assumed was a safer commercial bet than his little-seen adolescent dramas. “I thought, 'I'll try these horror movies because I hear they”re successful,'” said Coscarelli. “That was the original impetus.”

Though it would take another two years for Phantasm to make it to the screen — during which time, much to Coscarelli's torment, the blockbuster Star Wars would get a jump on the “trope” of hooded pint-size villains — when it finally did arrive, the surreal low-budget film starring Jim, the World's Greatest actor Rory Guy (now professionally known as Angus Scrimm) did find an audience. The $300,000 movie eventually grossed over $11 million at the box office, allowing Coscarelli to make the jump to what remains his biggest-budget movie: 1982's sword-and-sorcery epic The Beastmaster starring Marc Singer, which has itself become a cult artifact.

Unfortunately for Coscarelli's career at the time, The Beastmaster wasn't commercially successful, and it would be six more years before he directed another movie: the 1988 followup Phantasm II. While the sequel was characterized as a box office bomb at the time, it went on to greater success on home video, which fueled demand for further direct-to-video sequels in the series and kept Coscarelli working when his non-Phantasm projects failed to get off the ground.

“Sadly, I would finish a Phantasm movie, say Phantasm II, and go out and try to -– you know, I have a broad array of interests, and I've always tried to get other types of movies funded,” said Coscarelli. “I write scripts and I get frustrated. I wouldn't be able to raise any money, but there was always money to make a Phantasm movie.”

Make no mistake: Coscarelli — a casual, good-natured presence who in person has the familiar air of a beloved uncle — is well aware that his career, while perhaps never rising to the heights he aspired to, is more successful than most. But there is a part of him that laments that he never gained a foothold outside of the franchise that has been, in his words, “a blessing and a curse” in terms of his career.

“I think I could do just fine with a $60-70 million budget and I could put a lot of value on the screen,” said Coscarelli. “But it hasn't worked out that way.”

Still, he's grateful. 

“On the one side, maybe you don't want to just keep making Phantasm movies your whole life,” he continued, before conceding: “But I had the opportunity that a lot of fellow filmmakers never had, which was this ability to make these movies.”

For my full interview with Coscarelli, in which he discusses Phantasm's “horrible” first test screening, how J.J. Abrams was instrumental in shepherding the film's remastered version, and his unexpected Wim Wenders encounter at one of Mick Garris' famous Masters of Horror dinners, scroll down.

Phantasm: Remastered and Phantasm: Ravager are slated for cable and digital release today. Both are also screening in limited theaters.

When you started filming Phantasm, were you thinking this actually had an audience or was it really just a complete labor of love?

I obviously had no clue that there would be a big audience. I only knew that traditionally horror movies were successful. That was my operative mantra as I started the movie. I made two very small independent films that did no business whatsoever. I thought “I'll try these horror movies because I hear they”re successful.” That was the original impetus. But you triggered a thought in my mind, because the script was very uncertain. I was always changing things.

I do remember one time I'd shot a few scenes and I was looking at an outline of it and I thought, “from the time the brother goes to the bar and meets the Lady in Lavender, then with the kid going up to the mausoleum with the spear and the chase back”…while I was working, I felt like there was a stretch in there that was really going to be good if the rest of the scenes came together the way that the few scenes I'd already shot for it were.

I think that was my only instinct where I thought, “this section of the movie could really be good if everything comes together.”

I heard that you paid a test audience to screen the movie before it came out. 

This is a true story.

Do you remember what the reaction was?

It was horrible. It was terrible. But you've got to understand the way it was done. Because my brother-in-law at the time had some sort of psychological training and he wrote out a questionnaire. And we decided to screen the movie in an unfinished state, so it didn't have an ending at all. At some point the movie just stopped. The ending hadn't been filmed yet. We didn't know how we were going to end the movie.

Also there were special effects that were completely missing. So what we did, I remember this very distinctly, we rented a theater over at 20th Century Fox over there in West LA. And we somehow went out and put up fliers and solicited people, “come watch a movie and we'll pay you 5 bucks.” We got a good 150 people there. Luckily this was before the internet. 

We ran the movie and every time it came to a major special effects scene, the film would stop, the lights would come up, and my mother…because I was too petrified and my partner making the movie, co-producer Paul Pepperman, neither one of us wanted to do it. So we got my mom. She got up and she would go, “In this sequence, Michael looks at a cabinet and pulls a photograph down and it comes to life. And it's the Tall Man on the photograph. Continue the movie.”

I don't even think there was any music in it. It was funny because I ordered Angus not to come to the screening because we didn't want him to influence anything. We wanted to really get this raw response. And he of course showed up in this English garb with a cockney accent and stood in the back. “I've just shown up to look at this movie.” He was like walking with a cane. Nobody recognized him of course, but I saw him out front and the people were coming out.

And I just remember these two people walked by and one of them just goes, “Terrible.” And the other one goes, “Just horrible.” And they went their other ways and we went and took these [surveys] and tried to figure out how to then end the movie, and how to make something that would be palatable to an audience. 

It was the wrong thing to do to do it at such an early stage, but I didn't know any better. I was searching for a little feedback. …I”m just remembering that when Angus put his hand down, everybody jumped. Right then I thought, “oh, there's something working here.” But from that point on nothing really worked.

I read that you were one of the youngest directors ever to get a movie released by a major studio. Is that right?

This is a true story. …This was my first movie, it was called Jim, The World's Greatest. I started it when I was 18. A neighborhood friend of mine, Craig Mitchell was his name, we co-directed the movie. My father had had a good year in the stock market, he put up $25,000 to film this thing. It starred Angus Scrimm, although he was under a different name at the time. Then Universal Pictures bought it and we finished it on the lot. And I had an office on the Universal lot, and I've been working my way downward ever since. That was the pinnacle of my career at 19. 

Ravager is the first entry in the series that you didn't direct yourself. Was that hard to abdicate to another filmmaker?

Strangely easy because it was so organic. It wasn't like I just woke up one day and made a decision to do that. I think what had happened was, a lot of years had gone by after Part IV. I thought Part IV wrapped up the series nicely, and yet the first response I got after screening it was “When's the next one, when's Part 5?” So I knew that there was a demand for it and I'd taken an ill-fated turn of maybe doing a reboot, a remake. It ultimately didn't work out. Thank God. 

…I”d done Bubba Ho-Tep and somewhere later in there I was just starting to get one of my other projects going, and I worked with [Phantasm: Ravager director] David Hartman on Bubba Ho-Tep. He'd done a bunch of visual effects. And he came to me. In addition to being an animation director, he's a rabid filmmaker. Like every weekend, he makes little project movies. Some of them are hilarious. He”d always show them to me and I”d enjoy them. 

But anyway, he said, “Let's go out and make a Phantasm movie this weekend.” Here it is like 10 years since Part IV. And I'm thinking, “That sounds kind of cool. Maybe we make something and it can be supplemental material, bonus feature on the DVD or something.”

So I called up [Phantasm series star] Reggie Bannister and Reggie said “I'm in. Let's do it.” So we shot and this little segment that we shot — first off, I had a load of fun because I didn't have to come up with the shot list. But I could hang out with actors, I could work the camera, work the sound, I could do blood effects. The fun stuff of making a movie. So that was great. 

And it came out so well and…we did it really efficiently in terms of cost. Maybe more so than any of the other…movies. And I thought, “we can have a movie like this.” And Dave just wanted to punch ahead. I said, “okay let's do it.” We shot a couple more of these weekends. Just kind of experimental. Then I got serious with Dave and we sat down and wrote out a script for it.

Because the fans loved the original so much did you ever feel pressured, or maybe from the studio because it made a lot of money? Like, “I have to keep making these.”

Not pressured. I think it was more a function of, sadly, I would finish a Phantasm movie, say Phantasm II, and go out and try to – you know, I have a broad array of interests, and I've always tried to get other types of movies funded. I write scripts and I get frustrated. I wouldn't be able to raise any money, but there was always money to make a Phantasm movie. 

So rather than to just do nothing I'd go, “Okay, I”ll make a Phantasm III.” I've got some great scripts that were never produced. I just couldn't get anybody to fund them. Okay, “I'll go make Phantasm IV.” It's a blessing and a curse. On the one side, maybe you don't want to just keep making Phantasm movies your whole life. But I had the opportunity that a lot of fellow filmmakers never had, which was this ability to make these movies. 

I was struck by a quote by Reggie Bannister where he said, “The first movie was a fly by the seat of your pants kind of production.” You made The Beastmaster which I think is maybe your biggest budget movie, if I'm not mistaken. Do you feel most comfortable doing fly by the seat of your pants productions? How do you think you would handle a big budget movie? Is that something you really wanted?

I'd love to have it handed to me on a silver platter, like many of my directing friends have had it handed, but it's never just been in the cards for me that way, unfortunately. I think I could do just fine with a $60-70 million budget and I could put a lot of value on the screen, but it hasn't worked that way. 

I do enjoy, though, collaborating with a small number of people in the making of a movie. Movies can get out of control so easily. If mistakes are made in the scheduling and you can just burn through your resources. It's tragic, really. I've seen that with other people I know who make movies and how they have a lot of resources there, but then they make a few errors and then the money just gets wasted and never shows up on the screen. 

I did want to ask you about J.J. Abrams because I know he gave you the resources to do this 4K restoration on the movie. 

Yeah, they contributed quite a bit.

He named one of the Force Awakens characters, Captain Phasma, after Phantasm. Is that pretty surreal?

Yeah, it's very surreal. But I think most surreal about that is because we have this weird shared history with Star Wars because when we made the first Phantasm, we'd shot like 60 percent of the movie, and I get a phone call from somebody, and they go, “We just saw a trailer for this new movie Star Wars and your characters, the little brown dwarf guys, are in it.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” 

And so I went and saw the trailer, and we actually sat around for a couple of days totally depressed and being like, “Do we have to put them in red hoods, or grey hoods, and re-shoot everything?” Finally we just decided, “Okay well, it's another movie. A few years later, nobody will remember it.” Then of course it”s the biggest movie of all time. Then everybody just goes, “Wow, it's interesting why you decided to put Jawas in your movie.” I'm just like, “agh.”

Anyway, that was the first thing that we had shared with them, then it was while I was over there, I'd be working on Phantasm while they were finishing Star Wars, and a lot of times I would work in their main theater because it would be the room available. …I'd be sitting in there and they'd go, “Don, you're going to have to leave the room now, because we're going to have to run some Star Wars stuff.” And I'd go, “Okay, cool.”

And I'm walking out thinking, “Oh, so we've got Phantasm on the screen and then 10 seconds later, Star Wars is going to be on this screen.” There's just something weird about both movies are being worked on at the same time.

Then that Phasma thing came out of the total blue. I read about it just like you. Nobody ever told me. So it was kind of strange and kind of cool. All I can just say is, JJ and the people that work at his company are just so wonderful to support the film in this way.

The cool part about it was, J.J. had this instinct because he had wanted just to screen the movie for the people that work there. A lot of people had never seen Phantasm. He wanted to have a movie night and have me come over and do a Q&A with them. And he was thwarted because all I had was this junky old print. I had no hi-def materials. 

But his head of post production, his name's Ben Rosenblatt, and Ben just had this vision —  because they have the facility, the tools are there. Then it's just the function of finding somebody who's available to work. It would just be like, a Tuesday night I'd get a phone call: “Can you come over at 8:00? We've got like 4 hours. You can work with this guy.”

And I would come over. And the best part about it is, they were able to get a really high 4K scan of the original camera negatives. So those files were over at [J.J. Abrams' production company] Bad Robot”s server, so then for like the next year whenever there was spare time, I could come over and work on it. 

There was no real ticking clock, which was great. [Before] it was always, “You'll have 10 hours to do all your color correction” or something. The absolute best part of course is that every damn piece of fishing line has been erased. That's the only way we would fly those balls. Some of them, we would throw and put in reverse but others, it was always with fishing line. The shot where it hits the guy in the head, that was a reverse shot. I think we just taped this lightweight ball to his head and he would go like that. 

Then there was this fishing line that always dangled in the shot and a light hit it, you could see it even in 35mm in the theaters. And I'd always be going, “Oh god, people are going to see the fishing line.” …That part's great. Best part really though, I think is the audio restoration. There is a real Phantasm fan who works over at Bad Robot. His name is Robby Stambler, and Robby and his partner they made it sound so great.

I am so intrigued by these Masters of Horror dinners that you had with John Carpenter and all those guys back in the day. Do you guys still all get together and have those dinners?

I haven't been to one for about a year now, but I did go to one a year ago, and I've probably been to at least a dozen or two of them over the years. 

It started off very simply, just as Mick Garris, who having been a journalist before he was a film director…right before you were talking about there was a cable channel called the Z Channel. It was a movie channel that you had to pay a premium for. And he somehow got an interview show, and he would just interview mainly horror directors. He never had me on. I don't know why, but I remember watching. He would have Joe Dante and John Carpenter on. It was really cool. 

So he's known everybody forever, and I had met him also years ago. He just decided one night, “I'm going to have a dinner with some horror directors.” And he invited all these horror directors. It wasn't that many. It was about 12. The one thing that I still remember to this day though was, nobody wanted to talk about their own films. They wanted to talk to the other guy about his films. Like all I'm trying to do is talk to John Carpenter about The Thing. 

…Then the whole name thing, it was seriously just a joke because this woman was having a birthday nearby and Guillermo del Toro was there and he just goes, “Please accept a happy birthday from the Masters of Horror.” It was a joke. And it kinda caught on. …The best part though, is so then Mick goes, “Okay, well we've gotta pay.” I think it's like about $25. …Mick started going, “I have $300 too much here.” Cause we were so happy and we had such a good time that we're all just throwing money at him. 

Then he started to have them [regularly], and it started to branch out. He invited a lot of younger horror directors which was really cool, but then every once in a while really freaky people are sitting next to you, and some people I don't recognize. Like I'm sitting there…eating dinner and I go, “you know, we haven't met.” And it was this foreign guy. He goes, “My name is Wim Wenders.” How did he get here?

Then another time I sat next to Lucio Fulci's daughter. She was really cool. Then another time with another guy I didn't know who, he goes, “You look familiar.” He hadn't done some of his American movies and it was Nicholas Winding Refn. The guy who did Drive.

…Then Quentin Tarantino started coming. It got so big, now there's about 60 people coming. …Very eclectic, interesting people have shown up over the years. But also, Adam Wingard was there, and Ti West. Younger directors. And Joe Lynch.

If I could be a fly on that wall.

Yeah and the weird part about it is, I've tried to bring friends and [Mick is] always, “No, it can only be directors.” I tried to bring Angus one time. He says, “No actors. We can't have any actors.”