A visit by director Don Coscarelli at Rue Morgue’s Screening of Phantasm II


I saw Phantasm as kid on VHS at a friend’s house. It was a really dark night from what I remember. What stood out for me the most was the tree branch that kept scratching at the window in the room I was staying in. Try sleeping to that after seeing the Tall Man for the first time at a house that isn’t your own. Of course, looking back, the chills I felt have become part of the nostalgia of the times. The creepy Tall Man, together with Freddy Kruger, Jason, and Michael Myers, became part caricature and less bogeyman, a sort of Bugs Bunny or Winnie The Pooh. No, really, as a horror fan, that’s how I feel about the old school horror villains.

A friend alerted me to Rue Morgue’s screening of Phantasm II  which included a Q & A with Don Coscarelli (Phantasm franchise & Bubba Ho-Tep) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. We promptly bought tickets. I hadn’t watched the film in a long time and was happy to see a full cinema audience in attendance. Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes was the spirited host and interviewer for the night.

The big surprise came in a phone call from Angus Scrimm aka The Tall Man thanking everyone for their love of Phantasm movies.

Scrimm:  Give our great friends my very best wishes. I hear it’s a good crowd…I wish I were there.

Audience: Are there any particular films that you find scary that have given you nightmares over the years?

Scrimm: The first two films that I loved when I was growing up were the original Frankenstein with Karloff and Dracula with Bela Lugosi which I saw on a double bill. They didn’t exactly give me nightmares, but they give me delicious chills; that wonderful eerie feeling every time I thought about them.

As an adult, when Phantasm first came out in 1979 was also the year Alien came out. I was invited to a screening by 20th Century Fox and about half way through they kept teasing you with glimpses where they didn’t quite show the creature. And I got so unnerved that I thought, I can’t stay here!  I’ve got to get out of this theatre!

Then I thought, no, the Tall Man can’t be seen scared out of the theatre. So I sat through it.  A month later I went back to see it again and I knew when the scares were coming and I loved it. I still do.

As Angus Scrimm wished the audience a god bless, he sounded jovial and almost sweet; quite the contrast to the evil man that used to be part of the imagination monster collective that inhabited my closet as a kid.

The film was screened in glorious 35mm that night. The thing about Phantasm though and Coscarelli’s work in general was that each film felt like an act for the love of horror films. Insinuated sinister tones, abrupt gore, and isolated fantastical sets, made you feel like you couldn’t escape, but you couldn’t stop watching between your fingers. There were little to no explanations for the twisted events leaving it all up to the audience’s imaginations. The human mind can spin to places that cam only be known to the darkest part of our souls. Needless to say, that although there were the typical laughter inducing moments, the film still held to true to the genre of its day and in turn, one could see how it still influences today.

Audience: Why Phantasm II?

Don Coscarelli: I could never figure out a way to get into a sequel. The first one had a pretty final ending. Mike dies and the Tall Man wins and that was the end of it. How could you go onto a sequel from that? One day I had an obvious epiphany, why don’t we start it a second after the first one ended? Don’t have him die, of course.

It was the largest budget that Phantasm ever had. It’s one hundred percent prosthetic effects. There are no digital effects whatsoever.

The early work of some of the best makeup artists.: The head of the crew was Mark Shostrom and his three very eager young assistants were Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Everett Burrell who went on to become the king of the effects shots (The Walking Dead).

Colin Geddes: It must have been different to have a big studio behind it after making Phantasm I.

Coscarelli: It took a little while. Possibly the first time in history that a horror movie fan was elevated as the head of Universal Studios and his name was Tom Pollack. While he started working there, he had this dream he could start some horror franchises going. He immediately bought the Chucky franchise from MGM because they’d given up on it. And he was responsible for making Army of Darkness and got Phantasm II going.

It was fantastic to have this kind of money since we were working with peanuts on the first one. Looking back, they said it was the lowest budget movie they’d financed.  From our perspective they were throwing money at us.

It was an opportunity to do something different. The first one was very contained in a very depopulated area. This one we had the opportunity to make a road action picture.

Geddes: You made this during the evolution of bad guys and heroes making jokes. Invented a boogeyman character. How did you bring back the Tall Man?  How do you keep him a threat?

Coscarelli: I’d love to take all the credit for Angus’s performance, but he always had something about him that was always deadly serious. We did allow him to lighten up a little bit. He has six or seven lines in the first film.  In this one he wanted a few more lines so we allowed him to stretch just a little bit and I think we used pretty much everything he did. We were a little bit concerned in the scene where he grabs the girl and says, “Hello again. And goodbye!” But he still always does it in a sinister way. There was no joking around about it. It allows for the blood and guts to flow to play with that without adulteration.

Geddes: Who were the original auditions?

Coscarelli: Here’s some sad history of mine. I did interview Brad Pitt for the role of Mike. It was a really weird experience. Michael Baldwin had known Jennifer Anniston from before she was anybody. In fact, when we were shooting Phantasm III he brought her down to the set and nobody knew who she was because she’d never been in anything. He maintained that friendship. We brought him back for Phantasm IV. He was at a Hollywood party courtesy of Jennifer Anniston one day and he was talking with Brad Pitt and he said, “Oh you’re the Phantasm guy! I read for Phantasm II.”  I had completely forgotten about it. I went back to the videotapes and there it was. He was doing the graveyard scene saying,  “Reggie, one of these graves is empty!” In retrospect watching the audition I think I selected wisely. But from a financial point of view, it probably would have been pretty awesome.

Audience: We see Sam Raimi’s name on a bag in the mortuary containing ashes with his birthdate and weight. What’s the connection?

Coscarelli: When I started Phantasm, Sam Raimi had made one movie which was the Evil Dead. It was very cult-y and it wasn’t the classic we know today. Few people had seen it when it came out. He was working on the Evil Dead II. And I hung out with him. He was going through this acting phase. Yet going through Phantasm II there really was no role for him.  So I had this idea of sticking his name on the bag since he’s this little cult filmmaker. And who the hell would ever know? I didn’t know he was going to make Army of Darkness and three Spider-man movies and the Wizard of Oz. It’s a really weird thing to see it.

Audience: How do you go about finding your film locations?

Coscarelli: In Southern California we didn’t have the greatest cemeteries. I enjoy going to graveyards and funerals because I find it very peaceful. Location-wise I was trying to find things that could work.

I will tell you though we found this guy in Long Beach who owned a graveyard he had just bought. He was kind of a drinker and had a little hot rod that he’d race around. He really liked the idea of us coming over and making movies and the prices were right. We shot Phantasm II and III there. Then I found out he got arrested and served some serious time for using the trust fund of the cemetery for who knows what. We were unable to shoot IV there.

Audience: What was the difference with digital effects?

Coscarelli: The enhancement effects with digital is awesome. You can severely and grossly mess something up and fix it pretty easily. That part is fantastic. There all tools and you just have to figure out which of these tools is best.

There are very simple effects that you can do with digital. I think with every effect you have to find ways to hide it so it doesn’t feel like an effect.

Audience: Did you think the sequel would be better in terms of quality?

Coscarelli: Absolutely. Although we all know and love the original Phantasm, but from a critical point of view, the make up wasn’t done by any professionals.  A lot of the make up was done by my mother. She had created that whole wiggling finger thing in the box. And that came out pretty good actually. But we had a scene with a dwarf creature that was killed in Phantasm and we hired this make up guy and he put some wax and some stuff. It looks pretty rough. The idea for Phantasm II was to work with real effects guys and that opened up things quite a bit.

Now that I look back on it, I’m pretty proud of the prosthetics, but some of the optical flying effects with the sphere are a little dodgy which could have been pretty sweet with a digital touch up there. It forced us to do some inventive things. The Phantasm II Screamfactory dvd that’s just come out gives some insights into the effects.

It was like being in a kid in a candy store with all of these resources for effects then. Now looking at them I kind of wonder if we could have done better.

Geddes: You don’t need apologize for the effects! You set tone. A lot of films rely heavily on the effects, but tone is important. That was the strength for those movies. You pulled it off!

Coscarelli: I will say this though: The score is really cool in Phantasm with old school analog synths. They took those themes in Phantasm II and did created some really wonderful and melancholy, cool and action moments.

I would also like to give a shout out to the projectionist. A really awesome presentation and I’ve been present for some really bad projections, but this was exceptional.

Audience: What do you think of young people who watch the terrifying scenes you present them with?

Coscarelli: One of the most bizarre things is how many of our Phantasm fans go on to mortuarial science. So when that time comes I hope to get a nice deal!

It’s surprising how young some families turn there kids to hardcore horror. My parents never let me watch horror. I had a babysitter who had a boyfriend who let me watch the late night horror stuff, like Invaders from Mars, Godzilla and the classics like Universal Monsters.

Audience: Will there be a Phantasm V?

Coscarelli: We’re talking about it. The higher the roman numeral gets, the lower the budget. We’re obviously never going to get back to this level of spectacle and scale. Maybe we can make it happen.

Geddes: What are your thoughts on the current state of horror?

Coscarelli: We have two great films out in the theatres now The World’s End and You’re Next. The state of horror is good. It ebbs and flows. We go back to the 30s when they started remaking and sequel-izing movies. They figured out you could take a concept and beat it to death in the box office. We saw some of that in the late 90s with the affectionately called “J-horror”: The Ring and Ju-on.

Horror, like almost any genre, encourages creativity. There are aspiring filmmakers thinking about their projects. A year from now or two years from now we’re going to see something that’s really different and really amazing. There’s good stuff going on and recycled stuff always. But the future looks bright for horror.

It was a refreshing take on filmmaking in general. Too many times I’ve gone to these question and answers with older directors declaring the end of film. It was nice to hear something positive from Coscarelli.

And then I had the delight of having this happen.


Look for Rue Morgue’s presentation of If They Came From Within: An Alternative History of Canadian Horror - a multifaceted art project that imagines a different, more legendary legacy of uniquely Canadian genre films. Through 20+ movie posters created by some of Canada’s top poster artists and designers accompanied by sypnoses from some of the country’s top horror filmmakers. The exhibit is at Steam Whistle Brewing (255 Bremner Blvd) until August 31st. More info at http://www.rue-morgue.com/

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Jacqueline Valencia

Staff Film Critic
I'm a published writer, illustrator, and film critic. Cinema has been a passion of mine since my first viewing of Milius' Conan the Barbarian and my film tastes go from experimental to modern blockbuster.