Today: June 11, 2024

Don Coscarelli

By Edward Boff – His name may sound like that of a stereotypical mobster, but Don Coscarelli is perhaps one of the best horror directors you’ve never heard of.

By Edward Boff

“Death is when the monsters get
you.” Stephen King, Salem’s
Lot

His name may sound like that of a stereotypical
mobster, but Don Coscarelli is perhaps one of the best horror directors you’ve
never heard of.
Over almost forty years,
he hasn’t made that many films, but that’s often because he chooses projects
that are, to say the least, off the beaten track, and thus not easy to get
funding for. With his latest film John Dies At the End awaiting release,
it’s time to look back at a few of his achievements, including the franchise
he’ll forever be known for.

Phantasm
Made on a
shoestring budget and released in 1979, this became quite a cult hit when it
came out, as its brand of horror was hard to pigeonhole into one of the more
conventional horror subgenres of the time. Young Mike (A.
Michael Baldwin
) is living with his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and still coming to terms with the recent loss of
their parents. However, he’s soon
distracted from this when he notices the Tall Man (Angus Scrim) who runs the local funeral home is hiding some big
secrets, like strange creatures lurking in the cemetery. With their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the brothers
investigate the mortuary to discover the Tall Man’s unbelievable secret. With a
slow and dreamlike pace and style, this horror emphasises mood and melancholy
no matter how outlandish things get (and they get into some pretty weird places
and big ideas). This film gave
birth to a new horror villain, the Tall Man, masterfully played by Angus Scrim, who in many ways
represents the ultimate fear: death. This film – and the rest in the series –
are all strongly themed by the idea of facing death, trying to escape it, or
cheat it. Having a child
protagonist fits in well here as in many ways this does play like how a kid
might try to get their head around a concept like death; a cruel force that
cares nothing for your concerns is always waiting around the corner. That’s probably the main reason Phantasm‘s endured, alongside the sheer
imagination at work, and why the original, despite a few cheesy moments, still
stands up strong.

The Beastmaster
One of the better
imitator- erm homages of Conan the
Barbarian
, and a mainstay of cable TV for many years (to the point people
used to joke that HBO stood for
“Hey, Beastmaster‘s On!”)
this is probably Coscarelli’s most commercial film. Based really, really
loosely on a novel by Andre Norton,
this tells of young Dar (Marc Singer
in a tiny loincloth), a warrior who, by being born from a cow (long story!) has
the gift of talking to animals.
Now he’s on a quest for vengeance against the dark priest Maax (Rip Torn in a false nose) and his army,
the Jun. The film does have its flaws, like a few subplots awkwardly inserted
into the main story, and it does seem to go on a bit longer than it should, but
in many ways this is superior ‘80s sword and sorcery fantasy fare. Marc Singer makes for a strong lead,
and the character’s animal abilities are put to great use, not least in that
those animals include a pair of utterly adorable ferrets who’re by far the best
characters in the film! There’s a
lot of great imagination in terms of the setting, the magic and the monsters,
including some weird bat-people.
Which all makes for a grand adventure that does some interesting things
with some of the clichés of the genre.
Coscarelli abandoned the franchise after this movie. Given that next one
was Beastmaster II: Through The Portal
Of Time
, that was probably for the best…

Phantasm II (Main Picture)
After nearly
a decade, Coscarelli came back to the story that really made his name in that
rarest of things, a sequel that improves upon the original. After seven years in a mental
institution, Mike (for this film only replaced by James LeGros) is released into Reggie’s care. After getting messages from a
mysterious psychic girl (Paula Irvine)
and a less subtle threat from the Tall Man himself, Mike and Reggie tool up to
hunt down and try to stop him once and for all. This one is probably the most
“conventional” Phantasm film, since it was funded by a studio, so a
lot of the dreamlike style of the first has been lost. However, this matters very little, as
this film is a blast to watch with Coscarelli fully in his stride as a
director. Taking a few pointers
from the way Evil Dead II advanced
its franchise (there’s a not to subtle shout out to Sam Raimi in this film), and with the effects artists from that
film on board, Phantasm II builds on
the lore it set up in the first film, and all culminates in a huge action
packed final act. Interestingly,
this is one film franchisea that increases in the action content without
sacrificing mood or atmosphere.
There are still plenty of chills to be had, with Scrim cementing his
place in horror’s rogues’ gallery, and new improved looks and moves for the Tall
Man’s minions, including more screen time for one of the first film’s most
memorable elements. The silver
killer Sphere was only in Phantasm I
for a few scenes, but it became sort of the mascot for the franchise (one of
the taglines for this film was “The Ball is Back!”), and there’re
more of them set loose in this film and in the subsequent titles. Overall, this is a blast, showing what
happens when a truly creative filmmaker is really given the budget to let his
vision grow.

Phantasm III: Lord Of The Dead
Picking up
right where the last film is left off, Mike (back to Baldwin again) has been
captured by the Tall Man. Now
Reggie is on the search for him, picking up some new allies on the way, in the
form of others who have lost loved ones to the Tall Man, and getting help from
a most unexpected source. But as
Mike is made the subject of a strange experiment, he begins to learn more of
the Tall Man’s ultimate goals. This film can basically be classified as
“more of the same’. There’s a bit more humour added this time around,
which some have criticised the film for, but it mostly works well, and it’s
balanced out by some darker plot revelations. This film is also a good vehicle for Reggie Bannister, who
shows himself as a real horror hero right up there with Bruce Campbell’s Ash from The
Evil Dead
series. Sure, the
guy’s a middle-aged balding ice cream salesman, but he has real charisma, a
likeably flawed character, and he wields a four-barrelled shotgun. You have to
admit that’s cool! That’s one
strength this franchise has over many other horror series; consistent and
strong protagonists. It’s
remarkable how relatively few modern horror series have heroes that last for
most of their run, which leads to the audience attaching themselves to the
villains a little too unhealthily. In the end, if you like the first two films,
you’ll enjoy Phantasm III plenty.

Phantasm OblIVion
Mike, after
the events of the last film, is on the run, going far into the Arizona
badlands, trying to come to terms with what’s happening to him. Of course Reggie and the Tall Man aren’t
far behind, and a final confrontation is inevitable. But Mike thinks he’s found a way to discover the Tall Man’s
very origins, and maybe even do something about them.
The last
entry in the franchise so far is a return to the more dreamlike atmosphere of
the first, and in a clever move that not only stretches the budget but adds a
bit more to the franchise, works in some deleted and unused footage from the
first. It’s fascinating seeing
these scenes and they’re woven into this film’s narrative very well and
appropriately. However it does
emphasise the fact that by this stage a lot of the regular cast are beginning
to look their age, so giving some of them a bit of closure was probably a good
move. Despite a noticeably lower
budget this time, this film still has some fascinating imagery and a moody
atmosphere, and Angus Scrim gets some interesting new material as hints (though
not solid answers) are given as to what the Tall Man really is. It doesn’t perfectly wrap up
everything, but it’s still a good point for the series to end. For years a
grand finale to the series, Phantasm’s
End
, was planned; it was to be co-scripted by Roger Avary and the story would feature commandos going into the
Tall Man’s world lead by Reggie and Bruce Campbell! Sadly, that never came about due to the sheer intended scale
of the storyline (it would have needed a budget of about $15m). Will we ever see this grand finale, or
another Phantasm film (either a sequel or a remake)? Probably not, but then again, as the Tall Man himself once
said, “It’s Never Over.”

Bubba Ho-Tep
Originally a
short- story written by crime and horror writer Joe R. Lansdale, this tells of a most unusual resident of an east
Texas retirement home; Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell). Elvis actually did the old “Prince
and the Pauper” routine with an impersonator back in the day, but it’s
backfired pretty thoroughly, and the only one who believes he’s the King claims
to be JFK (Ozzie Davies) and that
the CIA somehow made him African American. The two of them team up to defend the home as the residents
are being preyed upon by a member of the undead who is after their very souls.
Pretty odd premise huh? Well the
remarkable thing is how well it’s played straight. Having these characters makes sense on many levels, both in
terms of giving both of them a last stand, but also for reasons of theming.
This is another film where the theme is facing death, and passing with what
little dignity one can. There’s naturally, a lot of humour in here, given the
premise, but it’s never at the expense of the characters. It’s all about
building a connection to them.
This one is probably Coscarelli’s biggest cult hit, and deservedly
so! Also worth checking out is
Coscarelli’s other Lansdale adaptation, Incident
On And Off A Mountain Road
, one of the best episodes of the anthology TV
series Masters of Horror.

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