Experiencing Don Coscarelli’s latest, John Dies at the End, was a trip at South by Southwest. Actually, experiencing any of Coscarelli’s films are a trip of one kind or another, and the guy is such a pleasant film maker you can’t help but want to hear him talk about his earlier works. That’s why we’ve chosen Phantasm this week. One of his earliest works, it was this horror film that landed Coscarelli on the industry map, turning its success into a full-fledged career that continues to this day. It’s also his scariest and arguably his best to date.
But, as interesting as it is to hear Coscarelli speak, it’s good to have friends, and he’s brought three of them along for this commentary track. The DVD box boasts Reggie Banister, who plays the guitar-wielding ice cream guy, Reggie – Pretty sure the part was written for him – but he doesn’t appear on the commentary. Instead, it features the other two leads, Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury, and the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, who isn’t even listed on the box.
Regardless, we’ve got the writer/director on board and three of the film’s main actors, so grab a seat and check out all the things we learned from hearing these men talk about Phantasm. It’s the commentary that’s got balls. If you haven’t seen the film, I regret the euphemism already.
Commentators: Don Coscarelli (writer, director), Michael Baldwin (actor), Angus Scrimm (actor), Bill Thornbury (actor), lots of Dos Equis
- The film is introduced by Angus Scrimm, who explains he was asked by Don Coscarelli to do the film. Coscarelli only told him he would be playing an alien, to which Scrimm began wondering which country the character would be from and what accent he would have to perfect. The actor offers us some examples of foreign languages. I have no idea what he says, but it sounds believable enough. Little did he know he’d be playing an alien alien, like the outer space kind. Scrimm then explains that Coscarelli wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited the film and that the film was a huge success in 1979. “Now, by means of this latest, entertainment incarnation, Phantasm is here for your enjoyment,” he says before mentioning the Tall Man might be right behind you. He says it in English, though, so you can get good and scared. Also “latest, entertainment incarnation” is a nice way of saying “We don’t want to date ourselves when things like DVD or Blu-Ray hit.”
- “Any good horror film has got to start off in a graveyard,” says Coscarelli just as his film opens in a graveyard. He then goes on to say he wanted to turn the trope on it ear by having the female of the couple making out in a graveyard kill the man.
- The man in the opening scene is played by Bill Cone who wanted more than anything to be killed off in one of Coscarelli’s films. Coscarelli obliged him. The actress in the scene, Kathy Lester play the Lady in Lavender, was uncomfortable filming nude scenes, so that side of the role was handled by a double. Lester insisted the woman filling in for her got her own credit, which explains the Double Lavender credit. According to Bill Thornbury, who plays Jody, Lester wasn’t comfortable filming with Cone, either, as she didn’t know him that well. The legs sticking into frame in the opening scene are those of Lester and Thornbury.
- The mansion standing in for the exteriors of Morningside Mortuary is the Dunsmuir House near Oakland, California. Coscarelli notes they had two days to shoot all of the scenes with the Dunsmuir House, and all of it was shot in order. The interiors of the mausoleum were sets. Coscarelli mentions how smooth the floors were on this set and how this allowed them even on a tight budget to get a lot of camera movement in the scenes shot there. He also mentions the set builders were right out of college, had no idea how movie sets were build, and actually built the structure to last. Only a small section of hallway was created, and the production changed furniture and decorations around and shot it differently to appear to be a full mausoleum.
- “All it takes to make a cemetery are some tombstones and a park,” says Coscarelli. The tombstones in the film were rented from 20th Century Fox.
- The thought that Phantasm‘s dwarf creatures look strikingly similar to the Jawas in Star Wars is not lost on the director, and he even makes mention of it. He does mention the dwarfs in Phantasm were conceived of before Star Wars came out. George Lucas’ film came out while Coscarelli was shooting Phantasm, and someone pointed the similarity out to him after seeing the Jawas in a trailer. There were discussions to make the creatures in Phantasm a different color, possibly grey instead of the brown robes they and the Jawas seem to both favor. Coscarelli mentions so many of the scenes with Phantasm‘s dwarfs had been shot, and they decided to keep the brown robes. Any likenesses be damned.
- “Why did you make a horror film?” asks Michael Baldwin. “Well,” replies Coscarelli, “for this reason right here.” He says this just as Scrimm makes his first appearance as the Tall Man, slapping his hand down on Thornbury’s shoulder and basically scaring everyone in the audience. The director goes on to explain there was a small moment in his previous film, Kenny & Company, where someone jumps out with a mask on, and the audience jumped. Coscarelli responded well to seeing an audience scream in fright at his film, and he wanted to have more of that throughout an entire film.
- Coscarelli notes his frustration with a lot of horror films he watched when he was younger. He would see ads for these films and be frightened by what he saw in the ads, but the movies themselves rarely lived up that. He wanted to make a film that a scary moment at least every five minutes. You run the clock and see if he succeeds.
- The casket Scrimm picks up by himself was made from paper mache. Scrimm notes the handles were Styrofoam cups. He had to lift the casket from underneath with one hand and use a rope that was tied to the other side to pick it up. He notes it wasn’t heavy, just cumbersome. “We took the dead body out,” the actor says. He also mentions it fell apart on the first take, but they were able to pull off three takes.
- Scrimm also remembers there were sometimes three or four weeks between times when he would film. The actor spent much of his time in those days writing liner notes for all kinds of genre of music. This isn’t mentioned on the commentary, but Scrimm is a Grammy Award winner for the notes he wrote for “Korngold: The Classic Erich Wolfgang Korngold.” How many horror icons can say they’ve won a Grammy. There’s Scrimm and there’s Madonna. Anyone else?
- Michael Baldwin learned to drive in the Plymouth Barracuda used in Phantasm. Coscarelli mentions he was always in love with the car and even owned it for a brief time after Phantasm was done filming. He also notes that most of the Barracudas that came out just after Phantasm were black, one of the many influences the film had at the time of release.
- Several scenes were shot and cut out of Phantasm. Some of these actually show up in the film’s third sequel, Phantasm: Oblivion. Coscarelli mentions one scene in particular involving Jody and Mike’s aunt. The actress playing the aunt was the same actress who plays the fortuneteller’s grandmother. She stepped into the grandmother role when the original actress, who Scrimm had brought on board, was unable to make the shoot.
- There’s an ongoing joke for the audience to pick up on in Phantasm where you try to spot as many Dos Equis bottles as you can. The film had a promotion with the Cuauhtémoc–Moctezuma Brewing Company, and Coscarelli remembers going to his production manager house and seeing 50-100 cases of Dos Equis in the garage. There were times, he mentions, where the cast and crew would drink the lager for breakfast. Who says the film making business is rough?
- Bill Thornbury, taking a page out of Kathy Lester’s book, refused to show his bare ass in the film. The “stunt butt” was played by the film’s key grip, and Coscarelli even kicked the stubborn Thornbury off the set that night. They made up and went to a Dodger game shortly after.
- Phantasm was shot over the course of a year with cast and crew members getting together only on weekends to shoot straight through the three days. Coscarelli mentions they had no permits and even had to tap into local residents’ homes for power. It should also be noted Coscarelli was 23 when Phantasm began and 25 when it was released. It was also his third feature film, his first two of which had been picked up by Universal Pictures and 20th Century Fox, respectively. Three feature films before he was 25, so time to get off the couch and pick a camera, huh?
- Mike’s surreal dream involving his bed in the middle of the graveyard and the Tall Man standing over him was one of the first images Coscarelli came up with after conceiving the initial idea. This shot would end up serving as the film’s poster.
- “The big question is, ‘Is he in agony, or is he in ecstasy?’,” mentions Coscarelli during the scene where the Tall Man is reacting to the cold air coming out of Reggie’s ice cream truck. Scrimm mentions it’s very ambiguous. Thornbury mentions that’s the way he reacts every time he opens his refrigerator.
- Originally, the main title theme to Phantasm was only used in the opening and closing credits. Coscarelli felt it got to the tone of the whole film and decided to fit it in periodically throughout the whole film.
- When they production went to get the shot of Mike climbing over the gate and into Morningside Mortuary, a STOP sign sat too near the gate for them to get the shot. As Coscarelli remembers it, “Roberto Quezada, our visual consultant, got in the van and just happened to accelerate in the wrong direction, and the composition was perfect after that.” At this Baldwin jokes, “Creative independent film making.”
- The display head that falls into Mike’s arms as he’s searching through the main house of the mortuary was initially supposed to be a cat. “We didn’t have a cat,” says Coscarelli, “so somebody, I think our intrepid makeup designer, Kate, came up with that idea of using a wig stand.” More creative independent film making. Cats are so overdone, anyway.
- Coscarelli notes they had the run of a local funeral home one night to shoot. The man who was in charge of making sure they didn’t break anything was an embalmer who would come watch them shoot between working. The director remembers one night when the embalmer was eating a doughnut, heard the backdoor bell ringing, and said, “Oh, I got another one.” He promptly left, doughnut in hand, to receive the corpse. “It was really morbid,” recalls Coscarelli.
- When the caretaker is killed in the mausoleum by the sphere, you can see a trail of urine coming out of his pant leg when he falls. Coscarelli mentions this was something you could barely see in the early video transfers. He notes the fact that you can’t see the urine as one of the reasons they were able to get an R rating.
- Coscarelli handled the camera work in all of Phantasm, sometimes at the risk of his own safety. In the chase sequence with Mike driving and Jody firing the shotgun at the pursuing hearse, Coscarelli was sitting in the trunk of the Barracuda. Thornbury fired the shotgun almost directly at him for one shot, no one on the crew being aware that even firing a blank shoots out a hot projectile that could kill at a close range. Scratch that picking up a camera thing. Back to the nice, safe couch.
- Unaware of how film making is supposed to be handled, some of the car interiors in Phantasm were shot with the actors actually driving the car. Coscarelli was not privy to the “poor man’s process” of getting these shots, shooting inside a stationary car and moving lights around to make the car appear to be moving.
- Angus Scrimm is not the actor’s real name. His real name is Lawrence Rory Guy, which people refer to him as in person. On the commentary, you can even hear the other three calling him Rory at times. As Scrimm explains it, he had to pick a stage name for when he would do plays “off campus”, presumably when he was in acting school. He wasn’t allowed to appear in plays off campus, and chose the name Angus Scrimm in case he was mentioned in reviews. It’s a stage name he uses to this day.
- There were times filming scenes with Baldwin, Thornbury and Reggie Banister where Baldwin had to sit for hours in front of a roaring fire. Coscarelli remembers they had to strap aluminum foil to his back to keep him from getting burned.
- Something Coscarelli wanted to establish in Phantasm was a psychic link between the two brothers. The moment when Mike is pushed out of the back of a car by the dwarf creature and the film cuts back and forth between him laying on the road and his brother looking pensively was added to help create this link. It’s something Coscarelli would build on with the ensuing sequels.
- “To this day I just thank God that no one ever tried to duplicate this, or I’ve never heard about it happening,” says Coscarelli about the exploding hammer Mike devises to break out of his room. I’m sure people have tried it. They just aren’t around any more to tell anyone where they learned about it.
- When the Tall Man reappears at Mike and Jody’s house, the original idea was to have him still missing the fingers Mike had severed earlier in the film. A long, phony arm was created for Scrimm to wear, but it stuck out over a foot beyond his actual arm. The idea was dropped, and the Tall Man’s ability to regenerate missing limbs was devised.
- Initially, the flying ball was only supposed to make the one appearance early in the film. It came off so well, though, that Coscarelli decided in the editing stage to add the extra sequence near the end.
- The space gate room was Coscarelli’s homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The director states it was this film that got him into film making to begin with. The transfer of the film that this commentary track accompanies, presumably the laserdisc of the film, is the first transfer where the walls of the room give off the glow Coscarelli was always going for. The director remembers most of the crew had to wear sunglasses while working on the set.
- Also about those earlier transfers of the film, when the lights in the space gate room go out, the sequence where you only hear the main actors talking and Mike flicks a lighter only to see one of the dwarf creatures was completely cut from the film in early released versions. The dialogue appeared in the theatrical version of Phantasm, but, when it was released on home video, the lab thought the reel was over when the lights when out and made the cut at the point. In VHS copies of the film, it cuts immediately to the exterior shot of the Dunsmuir House. “Sometimes the technicians have the final cut on these things,” says Coscarelli.
- It was Reggie Banister and his wife, Susan’s, idea to factor in the idea of the tuning fork and Reggie putting both hands on the chrome poles to open the space gate.
- After Reggie opens the gate and the canisters begin getting sucked into the space gate, you can see a red welt on top of the actor’s head. This was the result of one of the canisters hitting him square on the head in an earlier take. No one mentions any prolonged effects it had on Bannister’s mental state, and that can’t be a coincidence.
- It wasn’t decided until late in the production to have the Lady in Lavender be an incarnation of the Tall Man. Coscarelli remembers this was a revelation for actress Kathy Lester. “It was a revelation to me, too,” says Scrimm. Baldwin jokes that Scrimm still has the lavender dress.
- The effect of the mansion disappearing in a bright, colorful light was done by Joe Westheimer, who did many of the effects on the original “Star Trek” series. The effect on the mansion is the same one used for the transporter sequences on the series.
- The effect of having the door pulled off its hinges and flying into the house was achieved by having co-producer Paul Pepperman standing behind the door, which already had its hinges removed. He then ran full force into the house holding the door in front of him the whole time, making it appear as if the door had magically flown off. If you look very carefully, you can see the door bouncing along instead of flying smoothly.
- Another sequence Coscarelli had to cut from Phantasm came when Mike is meeting all manners of horror in the woods. Coscarelli refers to them as challenges. After coming across the Lady in Lavender again, Mike turns quickly. Originally, he came face-to-face with a web where the bug from earlier in the film is resting. The effect didn’t look very good, so it was cut completely.
- As expected, the audiences Coscarelli saw the film with in its early days of release were not pleased that the whole thing ended up being a dream. He credits Bannister and Baldwin’s performances for capturing the audience’s attention. It could have been worse, though. It’s not like it was a whole season of a TV series that ended up being a dream the whole time. Now, that would really piss people off.
Best in Commentary
“It’s the American way of death. Something that I was always disgusted with and fascinated with was the fact that we, as Americans, when somebody dies, we hide them away. We don’t have anything to do with it. We turn it over to this mortician or undertaker, and that’s why people are freaked out by death and freaked out by morticians.” – Don Coscarelli on the idea that began Phantasm.
Lots of insight as well as camaraderie is brought out in this commentary track. This film was clearly a labor of love for all four of these men, and Coscarelli is just as pleasant to listen to as ever. He provides more than enough information regarding the production of Phantasm, even if there isn’t a lot of talk about where the ideas for the film came from or what theories there are about it. Those are left for the audience to sift through and decide for themselves, probably a conscious decision on Coscarelli’s part.
Phantasm isn’t one of the best horror films of all time, and this commentary track isn’t among the best, either. However, the commentary, just like the film itself, gets in, gets out, and does its job satisfactorily. It’s a commendable effort from all of the commentators involved, and, at less than 90 minutes, it doesn’t even take up a large chunk of your time.