never used to be a big fan of the Phantasm movies. I’m embarassed to
admit that my encounters with the first two movies as a gore-hound
teenager left me confused and frustrated. Then, years later, I receive
a copy of the superb new Anchor Bay UK boxset, which comes housed in a
reproduction silver sphere. I immerse myself in the world of The Tall
Man, and emerge from the other side as a fully-fledged convert.
the same way that your taste buds mature so you can appreciate the
peppery tang of a hot mustard, or your appreciation of music can grow
to the point where you realise that Frank Zappa wasn’t just some weirdo
making funny noises, that’s how my adult reunion with Phantasm felt.
had once frustrated me with its oblique tone and long gaps between
kills, filled with surreal plot twists and seemingly random nightmarish
imagery, was now revealed as what may be the boldest, most singularly
individual, horror franchise around. If I could use Quantum Leap-style
body jumping for just one day, I’d leap into the leathery form of Avi
Arad and sign up series creator Don Coscarelli to direct a big budget
Doctor Strange movie. It’s what the world needs.
Anyway, when I
heard that Don was available for interview I knew this was an
opportunity I couldn’t pass up. If you want to learn about the genesis
of Phantasm, the future of the franchise, the chances of seeing Bubba
Nosferatu or simply the importance of maintaining your Phantasmness,
So, Phantasm’s getting a lovely boxset over here in the UK…
You know, it certainly is. I was quite astounded when I finally saw the photos of the packaging. It’s a dream package really.
spent this past week watching all four Phantasm films and all the bonus
features. You may yet be on the receiving end of a lawsuit for my
mental state. I’d seen the first two films, but not the second two, and
– in the best possible way – they are weird films.
Yeah, they are!
I’ve had some very strange dreams this week.
the exciting part. The four-pack gives people the chance to sit down
and watch them all at once, because over here in the US two of the
titles have never been released on DVD. One of them came out on video,
but they never brought it down to a sell-through price so it was just
not accessible. To be honest with you, I should sit down myself and
watch them in sequence. I haven’t done that in many, many years.
the films do flow on from one another. There’s none of this "five years
later" stuff. They pick up literally when the last one ended.
I made Phantasm 2, the big breakthrough was the idea that I could start
the movie right afterwards and it pretty much stuck with us. There are
moments of inconsistency between them but the good news with the
Phantasm series is that we can blame those problems on the reality
You’ve got your get-out clause right there. It’s the Tall Man’s plot.
That’s right. He’s got a plan that we’ll never understand.
many horror franchises work because they stay within well-defined
boundaries – this is what the villain can do, this is what he wants,
this is how you kill him – but Phantasm throws all of that out of the
window. Was that your goal from the start?
no question that the films that I enjoyed as a kid were unsettling in
that you didn’t know where it was going to go. Once I saw how the first
movie played, and the nice response we got from fans, because they had
a lot of really interesting interpretations of the movie. Don’t tell
anybody, but many of them I hadn’t intended. People would go so far out
that in making the sequels I never felt like I had to explain much –
other than the one problem we had at Universal making Part 2, they
insisted on a very linear storyline.
Was there ever any pressure on the other sequels to conform to a more generic storyline?
only on Part 2 because for us that was a big budget $3m movie and
Universal was going to put it out in a theatrical environment, so they
put us through the research screening process.
How did that turn out?
it was ridiculous. I think when the Phantasm movies succeed, they
confound audiences. What the hell happened? Why’d he do that? What?
What does that mean? These were the sort of responses that you would
get from the first movie, which was a success. Then when you get to a
research screening environment they’re going "Oh, we screwed up".
Certainly, there’s a lot of pressure to answer as many questions as
possible. That’s why there’s a lot of narration from various
characters. There were some dream sequences that they required that we
OK though. The thing that I like about the Phantasms, as well as the
consistency throughout them, every one is a little different and I
think that’s OK. I had a lot of criticism from Part 3 when it came out
because it didn’t feature the core characters as much, and I brought in
The three zombie criminals?
And I brought in some humor, and the fans really didn’t like that at
all. I got a lot of people telling me they didn’t like it. When Part 4
came out, I think then they realised that (Part 3) wasn’t the final
Phantasm, it was just another chapter.
now with this DVD, if you sit down and watch Part 1 and you think OK,
then you watch the second one and you think "Where’s this thing
going?", you know that there’s two more chapters that are going to
explain it. Then Part 3 comes and you’re seeing all these zombies,
you’re thinking "Where’s this going? But I know there’s somewhere it’s
going" and they’ll be satisfied with the last one.
was actually quite pleased at the end of the last one, because I was
hoping you wouldn’t explain it all. There’s was still a lot of
ambiguity. I was thinking "Please don’t go for the traditional happy
course. That’s the thing with Phantasm – the happy ending is The Tall
Man prevails! He’s our hero. It’s a weird thing. It’d be sad if The
Tall Man lost. I’m glad you liked the ending though, because my goal
was to send them off in a direction that had some promise for each of
It was quite a poignant ending, I thought.
Good, good. Yeah.
don’t want to say "touching", but there was definitely a level of
emotion there that you don’t expect in Part 4 of a horror franchise.
think the other aspect of that is that as I spent time with these
movies over these many decades, I really cherish each of these
characters a lot, and knowing the actors…especially when we started
the movie, a lot of the characters – Reggie and Mike especially – were
created around the actors, to embody a lot of their selves. So as the
years go by I have fondness for these characters, I wouldn’t want to do
think Phantasm is fairly unique, in horror certainly, in that it’s
reach four parts and it’s managed to retain it’s integrity. It’s not
become a studio franchise, it’s retained its Phantasmness from one
through to four.
a good word! I’m going to remember that. I really appreciate you saying
that – nobody else in the world would appreciate a compliment like "it
retains its Phantasmness!" I guess subconsciously that’s what I was
always striving for, is to make these movies and maintain the
How did you maintain the creative control of the series over the years?
you know, it’s a confluence of the fact that the first Phantasm was
tremendously successful, and spawned a cult of fans worldwide, and yet
it was never perceived as the mainstream hit of, say, Halloween. So it
wasn’t like studios were falling over themselves to grab the Phantasm
rights. It was more of a curiosity item that people knew had been
interesting thing that happened was that at Universal there was a guy
who had been my attorney at one time, and became the head of the
studio. He was a big horror fan, and there weren’t many horror fans
running major studios. This guy got the Chucky sequels going, he got
Army of Darkness going, and at the time he thought we could make a big
Phantasm movie and that was our one encounter with the studio thing.
The release of the movie, there were some mistakes made. I think the
movie could have been a lot more successful. It was released in the
middle of the summer against big studio epics…
This was Phantasm 2?
2. And it performed alright, but there wasn’t any overt demand to make
sequels after that. But then the video market was really heating up,
and it did well there, so suddenly money became available from the
video companies and they didn’t really care what kind of Phantasm movie
it was, as long as it was a Phantasm movie. I had a strange opportunity
where, as long as I made it on a budget, we could do whatever the hell
we wanted, and this held over with Part 4 also. As long as it had some
spheres in it, as long as The Tall Man was in it, we could do what we
getting that criticism from the fans over Part 3, I thought I’d better
go back and make one more of these. More like the original and a little
more elusive. The downside was that the budgets were always low, so the
resources weren’t there so we had to use some ingenuity. Taking old
footage in Part 4 to fill it out a little.
literally just finished watching Part 4 a few hours ago and the way
that the unused footage from the original Phantasm was worked into Part
4 was really clever. You actually had the same actors playing
themselves in flashback, at they age they should have been. Was that
just a lucky coincidence?
had hung onto all this footage – I tend to be a packrat, I don’t throw
anything away. Maybe about five or eight years after Phantasm came out
I got a call from this lab saying "Oh, we’ve got all these old
negatives, should we throw them out?". I’m like "No", so I drove over
there and picked them up. They were in my garage for a while, until I
ran through it and there were all these scenes that we’d cut out. And I
thought "We could use this some day", so I had it in the back of my
mind. Then Part 3 came out and there was some interest in doing Part 4,
but the budgets were so low that the video companies had offered. I was
thinking how could we do a really cheap Phantasm, and still do some of
the things that I wanted to do? Maybe I can grab ten or fifteen minutes
of these flashbacks and write a script using them, and that’s what I
was funny though, some of the actors – they didn’t understand what I
was doing. Angus (Scrimm) had actually taken me to see, years ago, this
series of Indian movies called the Apu Trilogy about this boy, and it
was shot over about a twenty five year period, so in movie number one
the kid’s ten and in part three he’s thirty. So I go "Angus! We’re
going to make this movie, and it’ll be like the Apu Trilogy, and
Michael will be thirty five in one scene and thirteen in another!"
certainly doesn’t look like you’ve cheated in Phantasm 4, that you’ve
just reused old footage. Because we’ve not seen it before, it really
Luckily, the actual negative held up well so when we did the film to tape transfer it looked as good as the other stuff.
thing that struck me as I’ve been wallowing in Phantasm all week is the
tone of the films, which I would put somewhere between arthouse movies
and drive-in movies. What were your creative influences over the course
of the series?
it shifted a lot. When I made the first movie I was probably influenced
by a cross between Invaders From Mars and the great Dario Argento’s
Suspiria, because those were the kind of movies I was watching back
then. I look back at Suspiria – there was a movie that didn’t explain a
lot, and it worked. As the years go by, there are other movies, other
influences. There’s probably elements in Phantasm 2 influenced by
Stephen King, aspects of Salem’s Lot, a very small part of it at the
end, that showed the characters on the chase, chasing down the
vampires, kind of a road movie thing. I remember thinking that would be
cool, get our characters out on the road chasing evil. Then I was
starting to read Joe Lansdale, he had some funny karate women in some
of his stories, and I thought it’d be fun to bring that into Phantasm,
and that was what came into Phantasm 3. Part 4, I don’t know – just
thinking of a way to tie it all up.
I was making that first Phantasm, I was inspired by movies like
Chainsaw Massacre that were really made for the drive-in, so there was
that exploitation thing. I wanted to have some sexy gals, some hot cars
and shotguns – stuff like that. But the story just got so weird – it
was a strange brew.
Do you have any favorite moments from the series?
I love the ending for Part 4, with Reggie. I love the music scene in
Part 1. Sheer magic. I don’t know what I was thinking! I knew these
guys, they were great musicians, you know, maybe they should just be
hanging out on the porch playing music. They just worked up this little
thing, and I turned the camera on. It’s so weird, but then it the
context it’s wonderful.
I think the scene that everybody loves, the first appearance of the
sphere. The response of The Tall Man afterwards. I think some of my
favorite geometry, my compositions, in any of my movies is that
stand-off between Mike and The Tall Man after the first sphere has hit,
they sort of take a step towards each other, that little moment. I
could go on about them, there’s a lot of stuff I like. Just don’t ask
me the stuff I don’t like!
the next question then! What’s the status of Phantasm 5? Last we heard,
New Line were interested and you were going to produce but not direct.
Is that still on the cards?
deal was ever consumated. As of this moment, the deal was never closed
– though they still have a tremendous amount of interest, as do other
companies. The thing is with these remakes of franchises, it’s very
easy for different companies to get interested in. So there’s still a
possibility that something like that could happen. Unfortunately it’s
still unclear right now. There’s still also the possibility that I
might get together with the original actors and make a really tough
little low budget coda to the series. There is a script for that but
obviously it’s something we’ve got to do now because Reggie and Angus
still look great, they’re in great shape, but none of us are getting
like to talk a little about Joe Lansdale, because my first encounter
with his books is quite similar to my first encounter with the Phantasm
films. I saw them when I was a teenager, just gobbling up anything that
was horror related, and Phantasm was one of the videos I saw, expecting
it to be an Elm Street kind of thing, and it ended and I was like
"Hmmm. That wasn’t what I was expecting", and the same was true of Joe
Lansdale. I was picking up all these cheap horror paperbacks and I
found a second-hand copy of The Drive-In, and I thought "Cool, people
getting killed at a drive-in", and I got to the end and was like "Hmmm.
That wasn’t what I was expecting". Of course it was only when you did
Bubba Ho-tep that I realised you guys were on the same wavelength.
I had the exact same experience you did. I went into a bookshop and
asked the clerk what was happening in horror, and he steered me towards
Joe Lansdale, and I went home with a copy of The Drive-In. After I read
it I was like "Wow! This is fantastic!" I tracked down Joe’s phone
number and called him up, and he had just licensed the rights to The
Drive-In that week. That was twelve years ago. I read his books and I
see the movies there. I guess we are like-minded souls in some
respects. When I saw Bubba Ho-tep, I thought that could make a great
movie. I read the short story Incident On And Off A Mountain Road,
which I put into the Masters of Horror project, and many more. And I
thought "Oh, I’ve got to be the first guy to make a Joe Lansdale movie
because this guy is terrific. These are great movie stories". And yet
years went by and nobody was taking them. I think you need to have a
quirky sense, like we do. After Bubba Ho-tep, there’s a lot of interest
in his material, a lot of stuff in development with high profile
filmmakers. It’s strange stuff, it doesn’t fit into any kind of a mould
and I think that scares the studio execs.
interviewed Bruce Campbell a couple of years ago and he said pretty
much the same thing. Why is Bubba Ho-tep taking so long to come out?
Surely Bruce Campbell has an audience, you’ve got Ossie Davies, and he
said the studios don’t know how to market it, because you can’t have
two guys on the poster pointing guns. It’s a tough sell and that makes
certainly does. I think that’s the wonder of Bubba. You can look at
Joe, Bruce and myself and you can probably say the same thing about all
of us – we seem to have some promise, but it’s kinda quirky. It was a nice confluence that we all got to work together on that.
Is Bubba Nosferatu still on the cards?
believe so. We’re still in active discussions. Bruce definitely wants
to return in the role, Joe wants to stay involved and we seem to have
some interest. We haven’t locked it down just yet, but it is ongoing
and I think it can happen, sooner rather than later. Bruce’s big joke
is that there’s no rush because as the years go by he only gets to look
more like old Elvis, so he won’t have to wear the make-up.
course, Masters of Horror brings together Joe Lansdale and Angus
Scrimm, two parts of your career. What can we expect from Incident On
And Off A Mountain Road?
different. It’s certainly not typical me, and it’s not typical Joe
Lansdale. It’s a much more controlled story, and on the surface it
seems like a very traditional movie, which is why I was attracted to
it. A big chunk of it is essentially a woman, after a car wreck, being
pursued through the woods by a really vicious, radical serial killer. I
haven’t really done a straight thriller, so as a director that was
really exciting, but of course coming from Joe Lansdale it isn’t going
to be your typical story, it’s not going to have your typical
resolution. It’s deep and layered. It starts off one way, but it ends
somewhere completely different. Being able to work Angus into it is
fantastic. When you see this role that he plays, it’s just insane.
Nothing like The Tall Man, but quite searing in its own way. I look
forward to hearing what you think.
Is your story still going to be the first one that gets shown?
Yeah, that’s what I’ve been told.
Do you feel under any pressure, that yours is the one to launch the Masters of Horror?
I’m happy with it! When you’re going into battle, you want loyal
friends at your side you can trust. Going into something like this with
Joe Lansdale on one side, and Angus Scrimm on the other, I got no fear.
These guys are both great in their own right. It’s solid and it’s fun,
and I think for the one hour format it turned out quite well.
Unfortunately Joe’s story is quite ambitious so getting it made on TV
budgets was a struggle but we were able to pull it off. Showtime seem
to like it, but I’m curious as to how it’ll preview!
Are there any new horror talents that have caught your eye?
me think. The thing is, with the internet these days, everybody’s on
top of everything that’s cutting edge. You can talk about Takashi Miike
or Eli Roth, nobody probably reads about them much in the regular press
but they’ve been quite exposed online.
It’s hard to get that word of mouth these days. Everything gets overexposed quite quickly.
I really like the Pang brothers. I’m excited to see their new American movie, though I hope they don’t go the way of John Woo.
Yeah, it sounds promising. I saw some photos.
That’s the one that’s being written by one of our old friends who used to write for the site, Mark Wheaton.
That’s the guy. Wonderful. Great to see people coming up from there.
I’m sure it’s going to be exciting. I love Bangkok Dangerous.
Well, that’s all my questions. Thanks for taking the time. It’s been a pleasure.
appreciate that. And I will remember, I’ve taken that to heart, I will
maintain the Phantasmness! That’s my mantra. Maintain the Phantasmness
of my creative output.