Welcome to Psycho Drive-In’s 31 Days of Schlocktober celebration! This year we’ve decided to present the ABCs of Horror, with entries every day this month providing Director information, Best-of lists, Genre overviews, and Reviews of films and franchises, all in alphabetical order! Today brings us P is for Phantasm! In the mid-Seventies, writer/director/future-American-Treasure, Don Coscarelli made two family-oriented films, but hadn’t really made any money. So taking inspiration from Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (which had already been optioned and would be released to theaters in 1983), Dario Argento‘s Suspiria, and 1953’s Invaders from Mars, he sat down and wrote a series of images and ideas that almost coalesced into a full script (that was revised constantly while filming). He raised approximately $300,000, rounded up a cast and crew of friends and local semi-pros, and filmed on weekends for over a year. After another six or eight months in post-production, and an extensive revision to get the film’s length under control, Phantasm was completed and released in June of 1979. Initial reviews were mixed to negative, but as with most cult classics, critics just didn’t know what to make of it and recoiled in confusion. When I was growing up, though, there was only one film that every friend I had said was the scariest, mind-fuckiest film they’d ever seen: Phantasm. It took me years to finally get my hands on a copy and my friends were right, while those critics were talking out their asses. Phantasm begins in a fairly grounded manner, with a couple having sex in a cemetery, like people do. But as the sex concludes, the woman — straddling the man — changes into a scary old man and stabs his victim to death with a dagger. WTF? Right? From there we get the story of the dead guy’s friend’s Reggie (Reggie Bannister), Jody (Bill Thornbury), and Jody’s little brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), as they get drawn into intrigue and mind-bending horror trying to figure out why the local mortician, known only as The Tall Man (the magnificently stage-named Angus Scrimm) is gathering up the bodies of the dead. Let me just tell you right now, that if you haven’t seen this film before, you’re not going to figure out why. You’re not going to figure out what the little Jawa-looking hooded dwarves running around are doing, and you’re definitely not going to figure out what the hell those flying silver balls are that stab people in the head, drill into them, and spray streams of blood out into the room. You’re just not. Because Coscarelli did something amazing with very little money, but lots of imagination. He made one of the most original films — not just horror films — of the decade. Whether it was intentional or not, the massive editing that was done in post, forced a sort-of dream logic on the film at times. Sometimes things happen and there seems to be no rhyme or reason, and by the time the film is over, it’s hard to tell what actually happened and what was a dream. But the good part is that none of that matters, because Coscarelli crafted a disturbing piece of work that constantly keeps you in a state of unease right up until the from-out-of-nowhere shocker ending. Phantasm ended up grossing nearly 12 million on that $300,000 investment, so there was a lot of pressure to return to the property (Coscarelli went on to make the sword & sorcery cult classic The BeastMaster next, however), so eventually Universal Studios offered up a 3 million dollar budget and Coscarelli wrote and directed Phantasm II, with future-Special Effects legends Robert Kurtzman and Greg “Walking Dead” Nicotero providing the gore. The studio, however, held Coscarelli on a very tight leash, not allowing any of the more surreal dream elements that helped make the original film so disturbing, and they forced him to recast Mike with a working actor, James Le Gros (who won the role over a young Brad Pitt!!). The film was released in 1988 and just barely doubled its budget at the box office. While it was controversial with fans to recast Mike, Le Gros does as good a job as could be expected. His Mike is a little more of an action hero, though, and the entire film shifted gears into something more guns and explosion-centered. In fact, two houses are blown up and at least one car goes up in a fireball. The film opens immediately where Phantasm left off, before jumping forward ten years, where we find that not even what we just saw in the opening scenes really happened, apparently. Instead, Mike has been in an asylum and has begun receiving dream messages from a girl named Liz (Paula Irvine), who is living in fear of the arrival of the Tall Man. Reggie Bannister returns as Reggie, who — once his entire family is blown up — finally believes Mike and they go on the road, hunting the Tall Man and trying to find Liz. If the creators of Supernatural claim they weren’t inspired by this film, then I’d have to question their honesty, because Phantasm II is all about two dudes — one a surrogate older brother to the younger — driving around in a black muscle car with a trunk full of guns, chainsaws, and flamethrowers, hunting monsters. Anyway, this is the film where we learn a little more about the Tall Man, his motives, and the damage he leaves in his wake. Entire towns are dried up and abandoned, the dead all harvested before he’s moved on to another. Along the way Reg and Mike meet up with Liz and pick up a mysterious hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) who seems to have a thing for Reg. The final confrontation with the Tall Man is suitably disgusting as Kurtzman and Nicotero go all out to give us what appears to be a definitive ending for the monster. But that was not to be, and we get another cliffhanger ending as the Tall Man returns from the dead, Reggie is killed (wha?) and Mike and Liz are yanked out the back window of a moving hearse! All in all, for low-budget action-horror films, Phantasm II delivers. If you find the mind-fuckery of the first film too off-putting then don’t talk to me , um, I mean, this one might be more for you. It’s fun, but forgettable in relation to the other films. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994) once again picks up immediately where the previous film left off. However, due to a dispute between Coscarelli and Universal Studios, it did not get a theatrical release. Instead it went straight to video and ended up being one of the 100 highest selling direct-to-video releases of the mid-Nineties. It had a smaller budget this time around, thanks to Phantasm II‘s underperformance, but Coscarelli had his creative control back, as well as A. Michael Baldwin returning as Mike and Bill Thornbury showing up, reprising the role of Jody — who’s been dead since the first film!! Phantasm III is the first film I can remember seeing and thinking, “This director should be adapting Joe Lansdale stories” — which he later did with Bubba Ho-Tep (also, if you’re a fan of Coscarelli’s latest film John Dies At The End, you should love this one, too). While some viewers might find it cheesy or too absurd (and they did), this film embraces a particular sort of American Madness, with Reggie (who miraculously survived the finale of Phantasm II) ultimately teaming up with a gun-slinging child named Tim (Kevin Connors), who is a deadly version of Home Alone‘s Kevin, and a black female army vet named Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry) who knows kung-fu and is dangerous with nunchucks, to battle the Tall Man’s newest recruits, three looters Tim had killed who are returned as zombies with a grudge. Who could not like that concept? The film clocks in at about 90 minutes, and along with all the kung-fu zombie ass-kicking we also get a huge dose of Phantasm Mythology and discover why the Tall Man is obsessed with Mike. Well we don’t really discover why, but we get some pretty major clues before all is said and done. With the spirit of his dead brother Jody — trapped inside one of the flying spheres (a black one this time) and communicating with him psychically — guiding him, we learn that the Tall Man is building an army to conquer worlds and dimensions. And that he and Mike have some sort of biological connection. It’s all very loose and fluid, allowing you to make your own connections and draw your own conclusions. And that’s part of both its charm and its strength. The Phantasm films are a distinctly original American horror/sci-fi creation that couldn’t really exist without the guiding hand of Coscarelli. But while I, and a small army of fans, think this, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of money. It doesn’t go the easy way and appeal to a broad audience, and that’s a big reason Coscarelli is one of my filmmaking heroes. He doesn’t give a fuck. He has his vision and that’s what ends up on the screen. Sure he’d like to make money, but he doesn’t want to compromise. With few investors willing to fund another Phantasm venture, Coscarelli had an idea. In his garage was an entire box filled with outtakes from the first Phantasm, including three alternate endings. By constructing a script around the footage he already had, and working with low-budget locations, he could put together a film that would, if not complete, would move Mike’s character arc to a place he could be satisfied with. And with that, Phantasm IV: Oblivion was born. Responding to some fan outcry about the use of humor and all the new characters introduced in Phantasm III, Coscarelli brought this one back to our main characters and did its best to, if not wrap up their stories, to leave them all in dark places where the series could end if it had to. This involves betrayals, mysterious revelations, at least two travels back in time, and the Tall Man harvesting a gold sphere from Mike’s head and making his way off into another realm — Reggie hot on his trail with his quadruple-barreled shotgun. So the answers fans were looking for are hinted at, but nothing is really explained. And that’s just the way Coscarelli wants it. For now. Apparently there is a fifth Phantasm movie on the way; Phantasm: Ravager, with the entire cast returning for another adventure. This time Coscarelli isn’t directing though. It’s being directed by David Hartman and co-written by the two of them. All we know at this point is that it was filmed in secret and is already completed, supposedly to be released this year or next. I, for one, can’t wait! Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response ABCs of Horror 2016 Day 5: C is for Don Coscarelli - Psycho Drive-In October 5, 2016 […] last time we did an ABCs of Horror series at Psycho Drive-In, I wrote about the Phantasm series, calling it “a distinctly original American horror/sci-fi creation that couldn’t […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.