There are many horror directors who have made a mark in the genre with a vast legacy of films like Wes Craven and John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. Unlike those influential and profound directors, the there is a name that is just as profound but maybe a little less known which is that of writer/director Don Coscarelli. Most audiences know him for either Phantasm (1979) or for his more recent cult favorite Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) but he is a director whose small catalog of films have been diverse in genre and subject matter.
1976 saw the release of two of Coscarelli’s first features. One, Jim, The World’s Greatest I still have yet to see. It hasn’t been given a full DVD or Blu-ray release yet. The most important thing to know is that Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm starred in this film and these would be two actors that Coscarelli would call upon time and time again. The second was Kenny & Company, which is readily available and stars a young A. Michael Baldwin, who would later make up the triumvirate of stars to make the Phantasm franchise one of the most popular in horror history. Kenny & Company is the story of two twelve year old’s days of enjoying life and growing up while learning some of life’s many lessons. It’s a very well done coming of age story that shows Coscarelli’s strengths with a very young cast.
A nightmare that neither the characters nor audiences could wake up from. The Tall Man, as played by Angus Scrimm, was a figure unlike Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. The Tall Man was inhuman and from possibly a different dimension and worst part about him is that he was unstoppable and unkillable no matter what you did to him. Phantasm would catapult Coscarelli and take him into another world with his next film – The Beastmaster (1982).
The Beastmaster is not your typical follow-up to a successful indie horror film as it is an epic fantasy with a main character that can communicate with animals. Having dealt with children in his previous two films Coscarelli decided to take on the next biggest hassle with film-makers which are animals and there are plenty of them in this film. Television actor Marc Singer was tapped to star as Dar, the Beastmaster, which he would resume for two sequels and the television series (albeit a different character) which would be one of his most iconic characters next to that of his character in the television series “V” (the original mini-series and its sequel “The Final Battle” and the ongoing series). Coscarelli got to work with an accomplished group of actors with Tanya Roberts, Rip Torn, and John Amos. Although Coscarelli did not have a say in how this franchise would ultimately develop after he departed, he wouldn’t allow that to happen to his first major success therefore when given a major studio and budget provided by Universal he stepped back into the nightmare world of The Tall Man with Phantasm II (1988).
This time around Mike is played by the “studio approved” actor James Le Gros instead of A. Michael Baldwin who originated the role. A different actor may have taken over for Mike but all the rest of the original cast (that are still alive) returns with a bunch of new faces to be terrorized. This film was just as dark as the original but contains better make-up effects and more action. This was less a moody horror film like the original but that didn’t diminish the film’s impact on audiences. A franchise was born and The Tall Man would continue to haunt audiences’ nightmares for more films to come.
Coscarelli’s next film would be a film about survival and a more realistic nightmare in Survival Quest (1988). Lance Henriksen leads a group of city slickers into the mountain wilderness at the same time as a military group with opposing ideals. When one of the military group is killed they blame it on Henriksen’s group who is then forced to get his group to safety before they get killed one by one. This is an adventure film of man against man and man against nature. A very good film that shows that Coscarelli can navigate an adventure film alongside a horror film. This is a film that was generally ignored by everyone despite some fine direction and performances. It would also be Coscarelli’s final non-horror film as he would then focus only on horror films which generated his biggest successes.
After the dismal returns of both Survival Quest and Phantasm II (whose cult audience would continue to grow), Coscarelli would have trouble getting his next few films off the ground. Fortunately, Phantasm would be the one property he could get money for albeit at a reduced budget. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994) would ultimately go straight to video but that would be a good thing as Coscarelli would have complete control of the franchise. A. Michael Baldwin would return as Mike as well as Bill Thornbury as Jody, Mike’s older brother (who was absent in the previous film). This film would bring back the entire original family from the first film and would be what fans were waiting for. The Phantasm franchise has never been one easily understood as it asks more questions than it answers and that would not change with this film. One added element to the franchise would be more humor. Bannister’s character of Reggie usually carried most of the comedy in the previous films but it is spread across several supporting characters in this film as if Coscarelli was designing this film to be more fun and less horrifying (I mean by film three I doubt The Tall Man is as scary as he used to be). There are new creatures in the film and Coscarelli reveals more of the world as the audience learns about everything as the characters do. This film would do excellent business on video which would make getting the next film in the franchise off the ground a bit easier.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998) would see life straight to video four years after the previous film. Although armed with an even smaller budget than the last film Coscarelli came up with a brilliant idea for the film which was to utilize unused footage from the original film. He would splice this with a story that would reveal the true nature of The Tall Man in order for Mike to finally find a way to destroy him. This film is not as exciting and action packed as previous films in the franchise but it does try hard to answer the big questions that audiences have had since the first film was released and it continues to world build. Unfortunately, for fans at least, the film ends with even more questions than answers as if it was just a prelude to something bigger which is what Coscarelli always intended. Oblivion was intended to be a bridge for an even larger film to end the franchise but as of yet that film hasn’t materialized (more on this later).
It would be another four years before Coscarelli next film which would be as far away from the Phantasm franchise as he could get with the mummy horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep, which would see an aging Elvis and “JFK” (Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis, respectfully) in a retirement home battling a mummy. Based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale, Coscarelli would craft the second biggest film of his career. In many circles this is considered his best film (especially by younger audiences). This film just had the perfect cast (with Bannister appearing in a small role), script, make-up effects and monster and had the perfect balance of comedy and horror. This is still one of my favorites of Coscarelli’s films as I’m sure it is too many.
It would take ten years before Coscarelli’s next feature film saw release in the form of another adaptation of another writer’s work. In 2012, John Dies at the End would greet audiences with a different type of Coscarelli film. Based on the book by James Wong, this film is a horror and sci-fi fantasy with all types of monsters, drugs, and different worlds thrown in. It’s hard to describe the film without giving too much away and it’s a film to experience, just trust me. It’s both funny and a grand adventure into the strange and weird and it is never predictable.
Coscarelli takes his time in between projects but that doesn’t mean he’s lying low. In 2005 he directed another Joe R. Lansdale story “Incident on and Off a Mountain Road” for the television series Masters of Horror and most recently he wrote and produced what will be the final chapter in the Phantasm franchise – Phantasm: Ravager which is directed by David Hartman and should be released later this year. He may best be known for the Phantasm franchise but his style and technique as a film-maker is the reason why so many people consider him a Master of Horror.