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Phantasm director Don Coscarelli looks back on his career and why he confronts death

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Oct 1, 2018, 5:45 PM EDT

In 1979, a 25-year old writer and director named Don Coscarelli, with only two little-seen dramas under his belt, released an 89-minute surreal horror film called Phantasm. Made for just $300,000, the movie is about a supernatural mortician who resurrects the dead as zombies to toil on his home planet, and the teenaged boy who tries to stop him and save his small town. Thanks to memorable imagery like the white marble mausoleum setting and the iconic flying chrome ball with blades, Phantasm was quickly accepted into the canon of 1980s cult horror classics. Even Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams is a big fan: His production company Bad Robot remastered and re-released Phantasm for SXSW in 2016.

Along with four more sequels in the Phantasm series, Coscarelli also wrote and directed several other cult favorites over the years, like the sword-and-sandal adventure The Beastmaster (which spawned two sequels and a TV series that ran for three years), the heartbreaking Bubba Ho-Tep (featuring Bruce Campbell playing a still-alive Elvis fighting a soul-stealing mummy in his nursing home), and the genre-smashing dark horror comedy John Dies at the End.

Now 64 years old, Coscarelli reflects on the struggles and lucky breaks that led to his wild filmmaking career in his memoir True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, hitting shelves on October 2. SYFY WIRE recently chatted with him one-on-one about facing death through horror films, and why streaming services aren't going to save indie filmmakers.

As you say in your book, you haven't made your last movie. Why did you decide to write a memoir now?

Don Coscarelli: The more I thought about it, I realized what an interesting life I had led in the movie business, and it might be inspiring or educational to aspiring filmmakers. Also a number of my colleagues in the horror business had passed on recently — you know, George Romero, Tobe Hooper. I don't think any of those guys ever wrote a memoir, and I would have loved to have read theirs. Maybe that galvanized me to do it.


Don Coscarelli (Credit: Robert Raphael)

You write about suddenly becoming aware of death at the young age of 7. In Bubba Ho-Tep, you have Elvis confronting death in the most literal sense; Phantasm is about a young boy confronting death. How did that idea of dealing with death play into these movies?

Look, it's only out of reflection. I didn't know what I was doing when I made Phantasm. And now that I'm a little older, I can try to go back and analyze, with the passage of time, what I was concerned about. It's interesting to think that it really was a clumsy attempt at trying to come to grips with that big question, in that out of it came this fever dream of Phantasm [laughs].


Coscarelli on the set of Phantasm IV: Oblivion. (Credit: Scott Redinger-Libolt)

One of the reasons why I made John Dies at the End is there's this part where the character of Dave is confronting the character of Arnie, who is played by Paul Giamatti, and the kid is challenging him, trying to get him in the mindset, so he can look beyond reality and say things like, "Do you understand that one day you're going to die, you're going to cease to exist?" I'm paraphrasing. "And that you will not exist at all? Think about that and see if you can see through this other reality."

Some of the philosophies in David Wong's novel there really attracted me to it. Same thing with Bubba Ho-Tep, absolutely. The whole story is basically about coming to terms with death. And at the same time, you know, dealing with aging and how our society deals with the elderly. And courage and friendship in the face of the inevitable.

Where in the development process are the sequels to Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End?

There's nothing that I can really report today. I certainly think that more could be done with Phantasm if they can find the right situation for it. I backed off from being too involved creatively, because I've done so much in that world. Bubba Ho-Tep, as detailed in the book, we had a lot of setbacks with regard to a lack of involvement with Bruce Campbell on the thing. He gave such a memorable performance, it was very hard to do something without him involved. Again, I think that that story would make for a great sequel or series. Same with John Dies at the End. You know, things that seem apparent to you and I, sometimes the powers-that-be in Hollywood just don't get it.

You write in the book that the indie scene is in its "death throes." But lately, almost every year has a sleeper hit like A Quiet Place, Get Out, or Don't Breathe. Are those movies outliers that are flying in the face of the decline, or are they giving you hope that the indie model is still going to work?

Well I always have hope, and the ones that you mention are all great movies. But I think on a macro level, they are the outliers. Nowadays, the odds of raising independent financing and going out and making success like that are much more remote than they were five, 10 years ago. And certainly 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, there were much more opportunities to have breakouts in that way. But that's not to say that people won't still create movies that have an impact on an audience and make money.

Bruce catching a little quiet time between takes

Bruce Campbell as Elvis Presley, relaxing on the set of Bubba Ho-Tep. (Credit: Scott Redinger-Libolt)

There's a lot of wreckage and collateral damage left over from the indie film business that nobody really talks about. Ten thousand independent movies are submitted to Sundance, and maybe 100 or 200 get the light shined on them. And what happened to those other 9,900 movies? You're talking about a lot of filmmakers, a lot of people who invested their last dime and their hope, and they never even get it seen. People have a desire to express themselves creatively, it's just the cost of entry is so damn high.

Not to get too far into the weeds on this, but newer distribution outlets arise, and then they close up. Like in the past three or four years, Netflix and Hulu have really risen to success, and now they're investing the bulk of their funding in original productions, and they're not acquiring independent films as much, so that's become of a less of an opportunity there.

When you shifted into genre movies after your first two films, you write that it was because you liked seeing audiences be scared or titillated first-hand when you went to those screenings. Was that where you found the joy in this creative process?

Absolutely. Being able to share something with an audience like that is a powerful and wonderful feeling. You're a film director. You read a story or you have an idea for what you want to convey, or some kind of emotion. The thing is, the horror stuff is just so damn obvious. But then at the same time, getting across philosophical or emotional moments can be just as satisfying. There are some moments in Bubba Ho-Tep, especially toward the end. I haven't been able to explore it as much, but comedy and that response from audience is another thing that's satisfying to experience.

What's beautiful about film is 10, 20, 30 years after you make a movie, audiences don't change that much, and you still have the same effect.

TRUE INDIE by Don Coscarelli_jacket