The 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 really exist without the guiding hand of Coscarelli” and I stand by that. Don Coscarelli is a true American original and while his oeuvre isn’t huge (he’s only directed 10 feature-length films since 1976) every single film has a unique blend of imagination, devotion to practical effects, and sincerity not found in the work of any other filmmaker I can think of (except perhaps Frank Henenlotter, without the exploitation sleaze factor). Since I gushed about the Phantasm series last time, this time, we’re gonna dive into Coscarelli’s other distinctive works. Born in Libya and raised in Southern California, Don Coscarelli was obsessed with film from a young age, making short films with his neighborhood friends and winning prizes on television. Then at nineteen, he directed Jim the World’s Greatest, becoming the youngest director to have a feature film distributed by a major studio, Universal Pictures. That same year, he also released Kenny & Company. Both of these films were family-oriented, with Jim the World’s Greatest taking a more serious tone than Kenny & Company. Of course, when you’ve got Angus Scrimm playing an abusive alcoholic father, it’s gonna get serious real quick. After his first two films didn’t fare that well financially, Coscarelli did what most American low-budget filmmakers do: He made a horror film. And oh, what a horror film! Phantasm didn’t get a lot of good reviews but quickly became an underground sensation as one of the freakiest horror films of the 70s. It’s so well-received in retrospect that J.J. Abrams just completed a 4K resolution restoration that is in theaters this week and available on-demand YESTERDAY alongside the fifth and final film in the series, Phantasm: Ravager (co-written by Coscarelli, but directed by David Hartman)! Instead of rushing into a sequel, Coscarelli instead tried his hand at sword and sorcery (as Lexi can attest to) with The Beastmaster (1982). 1982 was a formative year for me and my love of sword and sorcery stories. I’d grown up reading Conan stories and reading Conan (and his knock-offs) comics, and in ’82 we got three fantasy tales that live on in cheesy infamy: Conan the Barbarian, The Sword and the Sorcerer, and The Beastmaster (we also got Sorceress and Ator, but the less said about those, the better). Beastmaster was inspired by Andre Norton’s 1959 novel The Beast Master, but Coscarelli and co-screenwriter Paul Pepperman took major liberties with the material, making it their own. It was the largest budget Coscarelli had worked with yet, but there were still struggles with the producers over casting and editing, with Tanya Roberts cast instead of Coscarelli’s choice (Demi Moore) and Rip Torn stepping in to play the villainous Maax when Klaus Kinski proved too expensive. While it didn’t break the bank, it found a second life on cable TV, airing on HBO, TBS, and TNT so often that in 1993, the programming director for TNT said it was only behind Gone with the Wind in popularity on the network! If you didn’t know, The Beastmaster is the tale of Dar (Marc Singer, just a year before he would conquer television as the heroic lead in V ), a young man with the strange ability to talk to animals. According to prophecy, he was also destined to murder the evil high priest Maax. After some creepy magical subterfuge, Dar is born from a cow’s womb but saved from an untimely death by a local villager who stumbles upon the scene. Fast forward a few years and Dar’s village is slaughtered by barbarians in league with Maax and the quest for revenge is on with his sidekicks Sharak the eagle, ferret thieves Kodo and Podo, and the black tiger Ruh. For more about the story check out Lexi’s Dungeons & D-Listers article linked above. To a skinny nerd child like myself, The Beastmaster was like reaching Nirvana at 14 years old. Sure Conan was epic, and Sword and the Sorcerer was darker and creepier, but The Beastmaster had cool animals and a half-naked Tanya Roberts. The film developed a cult following and ended up spawning two sequels (which were not good at all) and a syndicated television series that was so-so. It would be six years before Phantasm II was released (check the Phantasm entry above for the details about that drama) followed quickly by 1988’s Survival Quest (I haven’t seen this, so I really can’t speak to its quality), then we got Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead in 1994 and Phantasm IV: Oblivion in 1998. It was in 2002 that Coscarelli next created a film that seemed like it was just for me: Bubba Ho-Tep. Adapted from the novella by American Treasure Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-Tep stars superstar Bruce Campbell (already profiled here) as an elderly Elvis and Ossie Davis as Jack (who claims to be JFK, dyed black and abandoned in the nursing home). Together they battle a re-animated Egyptian mummy (dubbed “Bubba Ho-Tep” by Elvis) who is draining the life from the nursing home residents. And yes, it is as batshit-crazy as it sounds. There isn’t another living director who could have pulled this film off and hit every single note perfectly. The insane pop-culture mash-up madness of Lansdale was simply made for the low-fi practical effect creativity of Coscarelli. Which means, of course, that it simply died at the box office, only to live on as a cult masterpiece. The proposed sequel, Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires began as a joke, but then became a real possibility before succumbing to development hell. In the meantime, ten years passed. Wait, what? Yeah, you heard me: TEN YEARS before Coscarelli’s next film, but oh, what a film! John Dies at the End is a bizarre horror, fantasy, sci-fi adventure comedy based on the novel by David Wong. It is the spiritual successor of Bubba Ho-Tep and reads as though Lansdale had a hand in the plotting. He didn’t, of course, but Wong’s story had so much madness dripping from every page, there wasn’t any other director who could have done it justice. I can’t really summarize the plot without giving too much away, but let’s just say it involves a mysterious drug called “soy sauce,” alternate worlds, life after death, and an evil, organic super computer named Korrok. Oh, and a pair of bumbling exorcists named David Wong and his friend John. I loved this movie so much I reviewed it twice! Really, if you are a fan of low-budget sci-fi/horror that is guaranteed to bob and weave in ways you didn’t see coming, check out any film on Don Coscarelli’s resume. You won’t be disappointed. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.