On Monday, March 14th, some lucky SXSW attendees in Austin are going to get the first look at the newly-restored PHANTASM, Don Coscarelli's 1979 cult classic about a small town that falls prey to a sinister, supernatural mortician (memorably portrayed by Angus Scrimm). The restoration comes at the hands of J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production company, which took the time to painstakingly clean up Coscarelli's film, even while they were also working on their own little projects like STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and STAR TREK BEYOND. That's how much Abrams likes PHANTASM, and the movie's fans are certain to laud the producer for his efforts on this cleaned-up classic.
A handful of days ago, I spoke to Coscarelli as he prepared to fly to Texas to see his old film's brand new look with an audience for the first time. Coscarelli is and has always been nothing less than a polite gentleman, and a genuine pleasure to talk to. Below we chat about Bad Robot's work on PHANTASM, Coscarelli's relationship to Scrimm (who passed away in January), what the future holds for his series of films and the status of the franchise's next - and final? - chapter, PHANTASM: RAVAGER.
Your first screening is in a couple days, you must be pretty excited?
Yeah, it's really exciting. I'm so stoked because there are so many Phantasm fans out there who tell me, "I've watched the film 20 times, 30 times," and it's like they've been watching the film with sunglasses on this whole time. It's amazing, once it's been restored, the clarity and depth of the picture. It's really like night and day, so it's quite exciting for the original Phantasm fans.
And a new generation of fans, too.
That's a good point. We're not only preaching to the faithful, we're going to get to their children!
Talk about how this restoration came about, was it something you had been wanting to do for a long time? And how does J.J. Abrams fit into the picture?
Of course I did, but I never necessarily had the resources, or a distributor to make the effort to do that. The timing just worked out to be great. I've known J.J. Abrams for a long time, I met him a while back, and I knew he was a Phantasm fan, we talked about it, and I introduced him to Angus Scrimm, who he subsequently gave a role to in his show Alias. Angus just treasured that role and his friendship with J.J. About a year ago I got a call from J.J., who had an idea to screen Phantasm for his employees, but all I had was a scuffed-up 35mm print and the old standard-def DVD. He was stunned that there was no HD version of it, and he said, "I'm going to have my head of post-production Ben Rosenblatt give you a call." Ben is a brilliant mind and had this crazy idea for me to come down to Bad Robot and work in the evenings with some of their technicians after they finished working on Star Trek and Star Wars. [Laughs] We took the negative and got it laser scanned, frame by frame, transferred the files to their high-end system, and in the evenings I'd go over there and work with their colorist and their restoration guy. The quality of the lab work back in the early 80s - I don't know what those guys were smoking [laughs] - but there was a lot of negative damage and scratches and dirt, so some of the shots were in really bad shape, but we have so many digital tools now to work on that. The visual effects back when we made Phantasm were all done with cellophane tape and fishing line, and we were able to remove all the fishing line, so it's really, really exciting for me.
Safe to say you've never seen it look better.
Absolutely. It even makes the acting better, because now you can see the eyes of the actors now. And to top it off, the ultimate bonus, was that J.J.'s audio guy was a big Phantasm fan and he completely went in and fixed the audio. The score has never sounded so rich, it's so cool. I can't wait to show it to devoted fans.
It must be surreal for you, because here these guys are working on one of the biggest movies of all time, and Phantasm is an equal passion project for them.
Absolutely true, it speaks to the tone over there at Bad Robot, it probably is the greatest place in the world to work because they do some really big stuff, but then they do some really interesting things also. I have nothing but the nicest things to say about all of them.
Have you and J.J. talked about working on another project together?
We've had a couple discussions. That would be great, I would love to work with him on something, that would be fantastic. There are a couple of different projects we talked about, we'll hopefully get one of those things going soon.
When you were working on it all those years ago, could you have imagined Phantasm would have this staying power?
No, not at all. Truth be told, when I was making Phantasm there was one simple goal in mind: Get the movie finished and into theaters and hopefully get some of the investors' money back. To think that decades later we're still talking about it, I probably never would have believed it. Sure, some of it had to do with my talents, but a lot of it had to do with the cast I had to work with. Some really amazing talent; Michael Baldwin gave one of the best performances from a child actor I think I've ever seen up until that time, so nuanced, so subtle, he was so realistic. And having Scrimm, he was like the dark heart of the Phantasm series. I can tell you I was the first one to see it happen; he was having make-up tests done and he looked into the mirror after the make-up had been applied, and this look came over his face, that cold look with the raised eyebrow, and I thought, "Wow, look at that!" It surprised me, and it was the first time I thought this character might really work. And then of course Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, who did just an incredible score, they're so responsible for some of Phantasm's success.
Of course, Angus passed away not too long ago; can you talk about what he meant to you as a performer, collaborator and friend?
He was a dear friend of mine, and he also happened to be the first adult actor that I ever worked with. The distributor of Phantasm, AVCO Embassy, really believed in the publicity and promotion of the film, so for weeks Angus and I went from town to town and we just had an amazing time. He would actually go as The Tall Man [laughs] I've got photos of him doing these things, it was hilarious. He was very intelligent, very funny, very sweet. He had this whole other career as a writer, he wrote for Cinema magazine, he did the album linear notes for so many records: Sinatra, Miles Davis, he did the linear notes for the first Beatles album and won a Grammy. He had quite a career, and just a really good guy. We'd go to horror conventions and here you'd have this guy who terrorizes people, and all they wanted to do was come up and hug him and kiss him. They just loved Angus. One final thing I will say: His final performance is in Phantasm: Ravager and he's just magnificent in it, it's a swan song, and I think when the fans see him in the final Phantasm movie they'll be really happy he went out in style.
I know you've said it's the last one in the past, is that definitely the case? Especially now considering you don't have Angus to work with anymore.
It would be hard to replace him, that's for sure. This is the last one in this iteration; I mean, who knows, one days there maybe will be a TV series or a web series with god knows whatever actors, but Ravager really wraps up the whole story nicely. It'll be exciting for fans to finally see.
Is a remake of Phantasm off the table?
Nothing is ever off the table. You have a big casting hurdle there with Tall Man. Currently there's nothing planned, but if you had the right director, the right story, the right direction in terms of making something unique and still staying true to the spirit of the story. You know, all these years working on Phantasm, I'm like a Phantasm fan too, so I would go see it!
Do you know when the rest of the world is going to get a look at Ravager?
Unfortunately I can't share that yet, but it's really soon. In a short while we're going to make an announcement, but we're definitely going to get theatrical dates for Ravager and Phantasm: Remastered, because fans definitely need to see that in the theater, on the big screen. It really holds up on the big screen.
I recall you saying you'd like to put out a double bill with Ravager and the remastered Phantasm; do you think that's in the cards?
I think for sure, that would be nice. It would have to be sorted out once the release dates are all set up, but we're going to try to make that a reality.
I sure hope so. Good luck again on your SXSW screening!
Thanks so much for your support, I really appreciate it.