For every movie that gets made, a hundred others never happen. Some of
them are just stillborn, while others morph into totally different
films, unrecognizable from their initial inception. Here are a few
unmade films that have piqued my interest; to read about more films
that never were, click here for the first part in this vaguely continuing series. Click here for the second part.
Phantasm’s End. Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series is probably the single weirdest horror film series of all time. I don’t even know if horror really even captures the flavor of what this bizarre quadrilogy is all about; the original Phantasm feels most like a straight up horror movie on a serious dose of acid and Star Wars, but the sequels each feel stranger and more ambitious and more science fiction and fantasy than the last.
Over the course of the series Coscarelli began to lay out the plans of the evil grave-robbing Tall Man, his sentient silver spheres and his army of Jawa-like dwarves: he raises the dead to invade dimensions. While the films to date have been dealing with that possibility, rabid Phantasm fan and Hollywood screenwriter Roger Avery decided to get in on the action by writing a script originally called Phantasm 1999 AD and eventually retitled Phantasm’s End.
Taking place in 2012, Phantasm’s End sees the Tall Man mostly triumphant. Only three states remain in the United States, and everything in between New York and California is a territory now called The Plague Zone, and it’s under the Tall Man’s control. He’s making thousands of new dwarves a day, and he’s ready to break out and take over our entire planet.
But all hope is not lost! A crack team of high tech commandoes is dispatched through a dimensional portal to the red dimension from which the Tall Man derives his power. They’re joined by Reggie Bannister, once again in search of Mike, and they engage the Tall Man in the final battle.
Or the beginning of a new battle. Phantasm’s End went through a number of versions, and apparently was seen as both the end of the Phantasm series and the beginning of a new trilogy at one time or another. In the end Avery’s script was deemed way too expensive for this ultra-niche franchise; I’ve never seen the script in the wild, but I must admit I’m surprised it hasn’t become a comic book or something by now.
The Revenant. With Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Park Chan-Wook closed the book on his Vengeance Trilogy. Or did he? For a time he was attached to direct an adaptation of Michael Punke’s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. Based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass, The Revenant is a bloody and amazing story of survival and vengeance. Glass, and experienced trapper, adventurer and soldier, is leading a group of trappers along the Missouri River when he is horribly mauled by a grizzly bear. There’s not much the men can do for Glass; a small group is left to wait with him until he dies and then bury him. But when hostile Indians are sighted, the men bug off, leaving Glass broken and bleeding with just a rifle to protect himself. Glass improbably survives and hunts down the men who left him behind, intent on getting his vengeance.
Samuel L. Jackson has been attached to this movie for ages (which I’m assuming necessitates some level of story changes, as black men in 1822, the year the story begins, lived very different lives from their white counterparts), and for quite a while Park Chan-Wook was set to direct. I’m not sure what happened – this is Hollywood and things like this fall apart all the time – but the director moved on, while Jackson remains attached. Personally, I would love to see what Park Chan-Wook would have done with a frontier setting, and to have seen the kind of performance he could have coaxed from Jackson.
Night Skies. For a generation of movie geeks this is the holy grail of unmade movies. It’s Spielberg’s evil aliens film, the movie that would mutate into the soft and cuddly E.T. But before ET phoned home, he wanted to destroy ours.
Written by John Sayles, the script for Night Skies came from a treatment by Spielberg. The director was anxious to head off another Jaws 2; Columbia wanted a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third King and, like Universal with Jaws, could go ahead and make one without him. He decided to pitch them a movie originally called Watch the Skies (named after the last line from Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, but that phrase was owned by someone else and thus ditched), which was a horror movie take on alien visitation. Inspired by cattle mutilations and the story of a Tennessee family supposedly terrorized by little aliens in the 50s (a story relayed to Spielberg by J Allen Hynek, the UFOlogist who came up with the Close Encounters system in the first place), Spielberg’s film would find a farm family coming under attack by 11 (reduced to 6 in the final draft) evil extra-terrestrials. The aliens would work their way up from cattle mutilation to really menacing the humans.
Sayles envisioned the film as a riff on Drums Along the Mohawk, John Ford’s awesome Revolutionary War-period film about Henry Fonda and family fending off Indian attacks on their upstate New York farm. Sayles named the leader of the aliens Skar, after the Indian chief in Ford’s The Searchers. And at the center of the family he placed an autistic boy, who could reach out to the one good alien in the bunch.
Sayles’ script is like a harbinger of E.T., Poltergeist and Gremlins, but never is quite as good as any of those. There’s some serious tension and good scares and then absolutely silly stuff like an alien named Squirt eating a pie while being chased around a kitchen by a broom-wielding granny. The good alien, Buddee, has it out with Skar and gets left behind on Earth. He’s very much in the ET mold and does all sorts of cute stuff and hides in a clothes hamper and things like that.
As Sayles was writing the script Spielberg was making Raider of the Lost Ark; apparently as he was killing Nazis the director decided he wanted to do something lighter and sweeter next (even though he never intended to direct Night Skies and had in fact tapped Tobe Hooper to do it); he read his treatment to Harrison Ford’s girlfriend Melissa Matheson, and she really identified with the Buddee character. The two worked together on reforging the story into E.T.
But that wasn’t the end of Night Skies, at least not as a hassle. Rick Baker had already begun working on the alien designs for the film, and had spent almost a million dollars on building them. He and Spielberg fought and Spielberg hired Carlo Rambaldi to design ET. There were claims of concepts being ripped off, but apparently Baker and Spielberg have come to an understanding over the years. Getting a look at one of Baker’s Night Skies creatures may be the only holy grail harder to come by than the film’s script.