Don Coscarelli (2016)

In terms of horror franchises, Phantasm has had one of the more protracted—and interesting—histories. When it hit screens in 1979, Phantasm was unlike anything many audiences had seen outside the realm of Eraserhead. The story of two brothers trying to outwit an evil mortician resurrecting the dead for use in extradimensional slave labor, the film worked according to its’ own dream logic and eschewed the rising slasher trend in favor of eerie, trance-like sequences. Perhaps most notably, in spite of some of its’ macho trappings, it proved to be a strikingly progressive film. Beneath the muscle cars and shotgun fights was the story of a group of men trying to learn how to deal with loss in a society that demands that all men be the strong, silent type. When hero Reggie told the young Mike that it’s okay for him to cry over his loved ones’ deaths, then comforts him as he proceeds to do so, it was something of a watershed moment in horror films. Though the portrayal of male protagonists in horror films would remain relatively sexist and two dimensional over the course of the next decade, Phantasm nonetheless planted the seed of an idea that was years ahead of its’ time—and which would speak to a generation of young men similarly confused about whether they should follow their parents’ example of machismo and taciturnity, or develop a new, healthy paradigm of masculinity. (Notably, the portrayal of Reggie—who looks like Grand Theft Auto V’s Trevor Philips in an ice cream man uniform—as a sexual being and viable hero was, and remains, strikingly at odds with the horror theme ethos that protagonists must be fit, young, and classically beautiful to “earn” physical affection or the right to save the day).

Though the original film was a distinctly 70s product, the series really found life amidst the early 90s VHS boom, as its’ first sequel—Phantasm II, which took nearly a decade to find life—birthed a pair of direct-to-video sequels that were staples of rentals stores across North America. Through it all, one man remained the face of the franchise: Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man, the series’ recurring antagonist. Leering out from the cover of oh so many a video box, Scrimm’s visage was the thing that drew many a young horror fan to the series through the 90s. He did not disappoint: Scrimm’s portrayal of the menacing, implacable, yet strangely mournful mortician placed him among the pantheon of latter-day movie monsters. Replicas of his signature weapon—a levitating, metallic sphere armed with a variety of deadly implements from drills to lasers—are sought after at horror conventions, and Scrimm was immortalized as a NECA action figure in its’ Cult Classics series. Though never as prolific as Jason or Freddy, for 90s horror fans, The Tall Man was no less viable a threat or intriguing a figure.

Sadly, Scrimm passed away in early 2016, at the good old age of 89. Though his death was mourned by the horror world, he did not pass away without cementing his legacy and bringing closure to the role that defined his career. Phantasm: Ravager, which premiered at Austin’s Fantastic Fest last week, was filmed as the final installment of the series, a simultaneous last hurrah and love letter to the fans who’ve enjoyed the films over the past thirty-seven years. In honor of Ravager’s premier—as well as the exhibition of Phantasm: Remastered, a restoration of the original film produced with the assistance of JJ Abrams—I sat down with Don Coscarelli to reminisce about the series, its’ legacy, and of course, Angus Scrimm.

Preston Fassel: How did Phantasm: Remastered come about?

Don Coscarelli: I have known filmmaker JJ Abrams for about eleven, twelve years, and I met him because he’s a big Phantasm fan and he’d seen it when he was younger. He was always very supportive, he gave Angus Scrimm a role in one of his TV shows, Alias, and he came to me I think about a year and a half ago with this idea that he wanted to show Phantasm over at his company, for his employees. And all I had was this scuffed up old 35mm print, and a standard def DVD. Those were his only two options. And he said, “No, we gotta fix that.” So he put me in touch with his head of post production, a guy named Ben Rosenblatt, and Ben had an idea where we could do a scan of the original camera negative and put it into the workstations at Bad Robot and I could go in there in the evenings and me and one of their technicians could restore the movie. So I’d go over there after they were finished working on Star Trek and Star Wars and they would work on Phantasm. And it turned out just great. So we got the invitation to premier it at SXSW, and it’s a nice opportunity to introduce it to the fans again and, with the recent passing of Angus Scrimm, it’s a super nice tribute to him and his performance to show it in that venue.

PF: You made Phantasm thirty-seven years ago. What’re your thoughts on how the film has defined your career and, consequently, your life?

DC: It’s been an absolute blessing. The notoriety and the financial rewards have been good, but, boy, I’ve made some lifelong friends out of that movie. Obviously I was really close friends with Angus Scrimm for many, many years, but, I’m still good friends with all of the cast and many of the crewmembers. The co-producer, Paul Pepperman and I have been friends forever… And we did something together, and, it’s weird because at the time we did the movie there was just no clue that there would be any interest in it beyond hopefully just getting it in a theater or something. And it’s oddly nice that thirty-some years later people still have interest in it. That’s pretty cool.

PF: What is it about the film that we’re sitting here thirty-seven years later talking about it?

DC: There’s a couple of different perspectives, ‘cause it works for different audiences. I certainly noticed recently that I meet a lot of guys in their thirties and forties that tell me they saw it when they were like, twelve years old, and that it had an impact. I didn’t realize I was doing this at the time but I was actually making a young male empowerment movie, because you have this young kid living alone with his brother, driving a muscle car, drinking beer, shooting shotguns and fighting the undead. It’s a pretty appealing lifestyle for a twelve-year-old. But at the same time, I think the fact that it’s a movie with a lot of unexpected twists and turns and’s not just the kind of normal film we all expect to see. There are elements we’ve seen before, but the way it’s been put together keeps it off-balance and the audiences have appreciated that… And then of course the fact that it’s main focus is death, from the view of a young boy, and what’s the meaning of it, and some larger questions. And the scares. People love to share movies with scares that work in them.

PF: With the passing of Angus Scrimm, do you see any more Phantasm films in the future, or do you feel that the series has reached a natural conclusion?

DC: That’s actually a really nice description you have there. I think with the new movie, Phantasm: Ravager, we have reached a natural conclusion. It was designed as a love letter to the fans, if you will. It really focuses on the original, key characters and their relationships to one another, and the series’ consistent themes. So I think Phantasm: Ravager will be a nice conclusion, a wonderful swan song, and a wonderful tribute to Angus Scrimm. We shot all of his sequences when he was healthy, and he was terrific in the movie, his final screen appearance.

PF: Anything you’d like to add?

DC: You ought to see it on the big screen. So were’s hoping to have other screenings beside this one, because those fans that’ve been seeing Phantasm over and over again on VHS and DVD, this new version, Remastered, really is a window opening up, like the sunglasses coming off, and you can finally see Phantasm the way it was really shot. So the die hard fans are gonna like it, and they have to see it on the big screen and are gonna seek it out. And come to whenever there are screenings we’ll have the information there.