Interview: Don Coscarelli on PHANTASM, Angus Scrimm and…KENNY AND COMPANY!

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Director Don Coscarelli on the new 4K restoration of PHANTASM and more.

Within the history of horror, Don Coscarelli‘s 1979 classic PHANTASM will always be known as a pillar of the genre. To its everlasting credit, the film introduced some of horror’s most iconic visuals, characters and score and now nearly 20 years later the film has been overhauled with the help of STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS director and genre movie demigod J.J. Abrams, with a stunning a 4K restoration.

SHOCK had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Coscarelli prior to PHANTASM’s screening at SXSW in Austin Texas. We spoke about the legacy of the film, the sequels (including the upcoming PHANTASM: RAVAGER), early films like KENNY AND COMPANY and his memories of the late Angus Scrimm.

SHOCK: Aside from massive fan demand, what made present time appear to be the perfect time to revisit PHANTASM?

COSCARELLI: That’s a good question. A lot of things transpired that I actually had no control over starting with our dear Angus Scrimm passing away.  This is a wonderful testament to him, and that’s the number one reason I’m excited about this thing happening. In addition, it also pairs nicely with finishing up the final sequel of the PHANTASM franchise called PHANTASM: RAVAGER. So these are great reasons to release it now along with having this new beautiful restoration to share with long-time fans who have probably seen the movie many many times and I guess that when they’re watching the film, it almost appears like they have sunglasses on. The clarity of this restoration is so clean and clear I actually think it makes the performances better.

SHOCK:  Sometimes the grittiness and wear and tear of a film will bring a new element of character to it. Do you think that having this really high definition version gives the film a different tone or feeling?

COSCARELLI: Absolutely true. It’s a combination of everything. You probably hear this from directors all the time but when I watch my movies, all I’m really looking at are the flaws. This has been a great opportunity to go back and correct many of the flaws. Certainly a lot of the technical ones. And it makes for a better viewing experience for me personally. So it’s a combination of not just the visual restoration but the audio as well.

SHOCK: Speaking about the audio, one of my favorite characters in the film is the score. Do you think that with the release of this restoration of PHANTASM, the score could get a make-over as well?

COSCARELLI:  That’s an interesting question. I don’t think so technically because we were working with different elements I mean but jeez…it might be possible. That’s a great question! I will tell you the score sounds AMAZING! There is a richness to it. A lot of the score was originally recorded in full on mono with a few stereo tracks mixed in but most of them were mono so this has now been worked over with some new software that I purchased and I can’t believe how great it sounds. Right now I don’t have any word on a new score release especially since that vinyl Mondo put out a couple months ago. It was quite lovely!

SHOCK: Do you think the rest of the PHANTASM franchise will get this same restoration treatment sometime in the future?

COSCARELLI:  Probably not on this level. This was a one-time opportunity thanks to JJ Abrams and Bad Robot Company. It evolved quite nicely, and we were able to go over there and get a lot more hours of work than you would normally have in this type of environment. That being said, last year Shout Factory did a lovely restoration of PHANTASM 2. So that’s two PHANTASM’s down, and then 3 is going to be in HD soon, and 4 already has an HD and then of course the new one, PHANTASM: RAVAGER, was shot in HD and it’s quite beautiful.

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SHOCK: The Anchor Bay release of PHANTASM was jam-packed with bonus features. Will there new bonus features for this release?

COSCARELLI: Absolutely! I don’t know exactly what they will be when it comes out on Blu-ray. You know in this market, it’s crazy. There has been an entire change in the DVD market. There are so many movies being released these days that have NO extras whatsoever! There absolutely should be some new stuff, and when we get closer to when that happens I’ll have more information on it.  That is something to aim towards certainly!

SHOCK: We unfortunately lost Angus Scrimm in January, who you were very close to. What do you remember about working with him?

COSCARELLI:  Angus was very dignified, very proper and always on time. I can tell you that it may have been one of the reasons he played The Tall Man. He worked on my first film which was called JIM, THE WORLD’S GREATEST. I would have him drive down to the location where we were working and we would stick Angus in a bedroom in this rundown apartment and ask him to wait there.  We were so out of control logistically that some days an entire day would go by and we would never get to him. He would be waiting there so it was my job to walk back and say “excuse me Mr.Scrimm, we aren’t going to get to you today” and he would look at me and that’s the first time I ever saw the PHANTASM Tall Man. He would lift his eye and stare at me, and it would actually make me take a bit of a step back.

I’ll tell you another story that was so much fun. I did so much travel with Angus for the original PHANTASM.  They wanted to get the most promotions and publicity as possible so they would send Angus around the country and one time we were actually flown to Australia to help promote “down under.” Angus would make appearances at the theaters after the initial press screenings, and he would be completely dressed in his Tall Man suit and boots.  They would hide him behind a curtain, and then as the movie came to an end they had a fog machine, and the curtain would open, and he would step out and say his line “BOY,” and the audiences really enjoyed that. So we were at a theater I think it was in Brisbane, and the guy that was running the fog machine used it a little too hard, and the fog started rolling out into the theater, and the curtain opened and there is Angus and someone yelled “FIRE!” and everyone started to panic and run out and Angus broke character and said “NO! NO! WAIT! COME BACK!”. So it did ruin his appearance but everybody had a good laugh.

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SHOCK:  You mentioned working with Angus before PHANTASM but you have also worked with A. Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister.  They both starred in KENNY AND COMPANY and then again in PHANTASM. What did they bring to the table that made you want to work with them again?

COSCARELLI: Michael Baldwin was just a sensational child actor. After KENNY AND COMPANY I thought “how am I going to use him in another movie?” so I hatched this plan to do a story about a young boy sneaking into a mortuary at night and it just seemed natural like “Michael Baldwin will be fantastic in this!” You know, he wasn’t like this typical “actor”`. He was subtle, nuanced, and had a level of realism about him that’s just great. So to know that the star of your movie has those skills is just so great. Then Reggie has this persona of this postmodern hippy cool vibe, and he really is like that in person. He is like an “every man’s best friend” who you could trust to the extent that he would lay his body in fire for you. So I have those two, and then I also have Angus who can play that scary stuff so we had a lot of confidence that the movie could be really good. So it was very lovely to have them.

SHOCK: I read that seeing the audience reaction to the jump scares in KENNY AND COMPANY is what inspired you to do another horror film. I also read that your idea for PHANTASM started with your fascination with our cultural handling of mortality. Do you see any advancement in how society approaches the topic now? 

COSCARELLI: No. I see more Buddhism around so that’s good. It seems to give a Zen like tone of ‘’everything is going be okay”. Like, we are going die, and everything is going be okay. For me, it’s just as frightening as it ever was and it’s obviously the great question in all of human life. I think it is THE great question. The other question is “what the hell happens after we die?”

In regards to how society approaches horror in present day, I think horror is more respected now. Look at the rise in fan websites and the comic-cons and the rise of geek culture in general. When I was starting out, in some degree, horror was barely one notch above porn. Every review for PHANTASM that came out was like “this is a good movie, if you like this type of movie.” It always had that touch of stigma. In my opinion horror, sci-fi and genre films are the movies that are tackling the big questions, and often have far more creativity behind them than your standard drama or comedies.

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SHOCK: When should we expect PHANTASM: RAVAGER?

COSCARELLI: We will have some really good news very soon about the schedule for that. The movie is finished. It’s terrific. I didn’t direct it but it was directed by David Hartman and he did the visual effects on JOHN DIES IN THE END. He is an awesome director. I think it is a lovely tribute to Angus Scrimm in his final screen performance. This was shot when he was still in good health, and it’s just great. I just know that the fans will be so happy to see him walk in those black boots one last time. Reggie is back and Reggie kicks ass! He’s got the four barrel shotgun working and, true to PHANTASM form, there’s a gal he meets and you know it ain’t gonna end well for her. David really focused on those core characters that everybody likes.  I will also say that the score for PHANTASM: RAVAGER is freakin’ terrific! It’s all the same themes from the originals and they are written by Chris Stone who worked on PHANTASM 2, 3 and 4. It’s very stirring and moving. I just can’t wait to share it with you.