MVPs of Horror: Don Coscarelli exposes secrets of his 'Phantasm,' from flying murder spheres to the Tall Man

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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The famous flying sphere claims its first victim in <em>Phantasm.</em> (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The famous flying sphere claims its first victim in Phantasm. (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Four years ago, Richard Linklater deservedly garnered acclaim (and multiple Oscar nominations) for the years-in-the-making feature Boyhood, which followed the life of one boy (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 6 to 18. Due credit to Linklater, but he’s not the first filmmaker to tell one child’s story from youth to adulthood. A quarter century before Boyhood arrived in theaters, another fiercely independent-minded writer-director, Don Coscarelli, released Phantasm, an unassuming horror movie big on ambition (and short on budget) about 13-year-old Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) and his run-in with a nightmarish local boogeyman called the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm).

Coscarelli didn’t know it at the time, but those characters became constants in his personal and professional life: Between 1979 and 2016, the filmmaker oversaw a total of five Phantasm features, and fans watched as Baldwin aged from a scared kid to a haunted adult. (For the record, Baldwin was replaced by James LeGros in 1988’s Phantasm II at the urging of the studio, but Coscarelli ensured that Baldwin would reprise the role in every sequel going forward.) With each successive installment, the Tall Man and Mike’s pal Reggie (Reggie Bannister) also grew older before our eyes; Scrimm died two years ago before the release of the final — for now — chapter, Phantasm: Ravager.

By the director’s own admission, his entire career is made up of happy (and sometimes unhappy) accidents like stumbling into the horror movie equivalent of Boyhood. “We beat out Richard Linklater by, like, 10 years there,” Coscarelli joked to Yahoo Entertainment when we spoke with him earlier this month at New York Comic Con. Many of those accidents are detailed in his new book, True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, which serves up dishy behind-the-scenes stories about the Phantasm series, as well as cult favorites like The Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep. We talked to Coscarelli about tall men, yellow blood, and flying spheres of death.

A. Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm in <em>Phantasm.</em> (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)
A. Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm in Phantasm. (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Yahoo Entertainment: The Tall Man is such a memorable creation, like a childhood nightmare come to life. Did you have a Tall Man in your own dreams as a kid?
Don Coscarelli:
I don’t think so, but boy was I highly influenced by the classic Universal monsters. I mean, Karloff and Lugosi — those were the guys. Maybe a little Vincent Price, although he had a sense of humor and that didn’t do much for me. [Laughs] In any case, I think the Tall Man was my attempt to try and go down the path of a more classic horror villain from the ’30s and ’40s. I can’t take the credit, because Angus Scrimm brought a darkness and a power that only he could summon. I think he only has six lines in the first movie! I can still remember watching when he was doing a makeup test one day; he had always combed his hair to the side, but on this day, he combed his hair back, and the makeup artist had hollowed his cheeks. I thought, “Oh, that’s really good. This could work!”

What were some of the techniques you used to make him such a menacing figure?
In real life, Angus was about 6-[foot-]4, but we gave him boots that got him up to about 6-7. It was also a function of narrowing the suit; it was tailored very tightly and made him look very tall and very thin. On the first movie, we had no stunt double for him, because we didn’t have any other tall older men we could cut to. So he did all of his own stunts, including a scene where we hung him by the neck — that didn’t make it into the film.

Angus Scrimm makes an immediate impression as the Tall Man in <em>Phantasm.</em> (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Angus Scrimm makes an immediate impression as the Tall Man in Phantasm. (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)

What happened with that scene was we did a sequence where Mike and his brother (Bill Thornbury) end up hanging the Tall Man, and then at night, Mike keeps hearing this “Cut me down, boy, cut me down” on the wind. So he goes out there and has this conversation with him hanging from the tree. I love the scene, but it just didn’t fit into the flow of the movie. A few years later, the MGM lab was closing up, and they called to say, “We’ve got a bunch of your cans here — come pick them up.” I went out there and found all those outtakes that had been stored in really good shape! We had that entire scene, and by that time, I was making Phantasm IV, so I integrated it into the story. It was interesting to have Michael at age 40 in that film, and then you cut back [to the outtakes] and you see the exact same person as a child.

How did you decide that the Tall Man would bleed yellow?
I was just trying to think of what I could do that was different. And if I wanted to go with a different color of blood, what would it be? Well, Vulcans have green blood, blue blood has that connotation with royalty, and purple blood might be kind of odd. So I ticked down the list, and yellow became the choice. I really think there’s a lesson there for aspiring horror filmmakers: We’ve seen so many movies and so many TV episodes that every time one comes on, you know what’s gonna happen. It’s like, “Oh, she’s gonna open the door and there’s gonna be a guy there.” We’ve all seen that stuff. The idea was to try and do something unexpected, like a different color of blood. Or when Mike’s going into the lair of the Tall Man that’s down in this creaky mausoleum; the door opens, and suddenly you’re in a science-fiction world — this white room. It’s unexpected and keeps the audience off balance. That’s a lesson that I knew in my 20s and keep trying to think about today.

Is that white transporter room your homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey? You cite seeing that film as a formative experience in your book.
I bow at the feet of the master! 2001 was the first film I saw where I started to realize there was more to it than strictly entertainment. So yeah, it certainly was. I also think that I was trying to go with the use of wide-angle lenses [for that scene] because Kubrick loved his wide-angle lenses. I like to think he might have seen Phantasm, but I’ve never heard if he did. [Laughs]

You also devote a whole chapter to explaining how you pulled off the flying-sphere stunt. Did you have any idea that would become the movie’s signature special effect at the time?
Yes, I did! And I knew that we needed to push all our resources at it. With most special-effects scenes, if you just break them down into simple components and cut them efficiently, you can do [cool] things. For instance, in one scene that ball just needs to fly around the corner, and it was really easy to figure out. We put it on a little piece of fishing line and just pushed it to try to keep the light off the fishing line. And now it’s going to hit a guy in the head, so we decided to put it in his head, then pull it off and shoot it in reverse. The real breakthrough was getting the gentleman that built the device, Willard Green. He built the drilling rig and the blood tube that came out, because those were beyond our abilities.

Was the flying sphere something that came out of your childhood nightmares?
That was the one scene that did come from a dream. I often think about the serendipity of how we got that effect, because when you think about it, you’ve got the camera shooting down the hallway, and when you throw the ball, it’s gonna slow down and kinda fall. But when you put it in reverse, it starts to come up and kind of float, and then it accelerates toward you! So it had this dynamic of pursuing you that we got [on camera], and that was cool.

Did you play around with where the knives would pop out of the sphere?
Not so much, because it was really a function of the design. We went to Will and told him we wanted blades to come out, and drew these crude little stick figures. His original sphere is a beautiful piece; it should be in a museum somewhere. That’s one of the props that I hung on to. The interesting thing is that in the later Phantasm movies, we used a lot of plastic spheres, and they’d all get trashed. But on film, they look like they’re metal! I was at a horror convention once, and there was a guy who makes metal reproductions of them. And wow, if you ever get a chance to pick one of those up, it feels the way it looks to people in the movie.

Baldwin is all grown up in <em>Phantasm: Ravager.</em> (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Baldwin is all grown up in Phantasm: Ravager. (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s interesting to me that you started shooting Phantasm in 1978, the same year that John Carpenter released Halloween. Was that film on your radar at the time?
It was on the radar only in that we had finished shooting and I saw an article in the Los Angeles Times that John Carpenter had just finished shooting a movie about Halloween. The movie came out a few months before Phantasm, and there was an upswell in genre titles that year. I remember being featured in Newsweek in an article called “Hollywood’s Scary Summer,” where they also mentioned Alien and Dawn of the Dead.

There’s no question that Halloween created a genre of slasher that was immediately followed by movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and all of those franchises made a load of money. I was always uncomfortable with the misogynistic aspects of that stuff. I mean, it became funny as those movies got into the higher Roman numerals, with the teens having sex and getting killed. By then, they were killing male characters because they had to. I did an episode of [the anthology series] Masters of Horror that had a little bit of a “killer with a knife” kind of thing, but the basic story had a very feminist streak, so I really took pains [to avoid that].

Scrimm’s final appearance as the Tall Man, in <em>Phantasm: Ravager.</em> (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Scrimm’s final appearance as the Tall Man, in Phantasm: Ravager. (Photo: Well Go USA/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The Halloween franchise has now been revived by David Gordon Green. Would you be open to another director taking over the Phantasm series full-time? [David Hartman directed Phantasm: Ravager, which Coscarelli co-wrote.]
Absolutely, yes. So much time has gone by, and I’ve become such fans and friends of these actors that I work with, that to see some visionary younger filmmaker take it and do something really interesting would be thrilling to me. I think that the hunt would be on to find an actor [for the Tall Man] who had that scowl. I know they’re out there somewhere. As great as Angus was, everyone’s replaceable. There’s so many people in the world, I think we could find another Tall Man. It’s something I hope to explore in the next couple of years. These things never really go away — they are lingering nightmares.

Phantasm can be streamed on Shudder. True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking is available now.

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