‘Phantasm: Ravager’: Don Coscarelli and David Hartman on Resurrecting the Horror Classic

     October 2, 2016

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It’s a good time to be a Phantasm fan. Not only did the original film just receive a gorgeous 4K upgrade with Phantasm: Remastered, a new chapter in the long-running franchise has finally emerged. It’s been almost two decades since Phantasm fans last got an update on the interdimensional battle between Mike, Reggie, and The Tall Man, but with Phantasm: Ravager, The Tall Man and his cranial-drilling orbs are back and bigger than ever (No literally, there are bulding-sized spheres and they are awesome.) A labor of love, Ravager sees David Hartman step into the David Hartman step into the director’s chair for Don Coscarelli, who returned to produce and co-pen the screenplay. Picking up a near twenty years later, our heroes are no longer just fighting the perils of the red dimension, but the all too real battle against dementia, using that set up as a means of exploring the franchise’s trademark ambiguity between reality and dreams.

After catching the film at Fantastic Fest, I sat down with Coscarelli and Hartman to talk about Ravager, and the conversation couldn’t help but naturally turn toward the loss of the man behind the series’ beloved antagonist, Angus Scrimm. We also discussed whether Phantasm could live on without the late horror great, how embracing the characters’ old age opened up the door to a story that could fully honor Phantasm‘s roots as the thinking person’s horror film, and why they made sure to still include a lot of fun with an apocalyptic wasteland populated by giant, laser-firing spheres. And because I’m a die hard Bubba Ho-Tep fan, I could waste the opportunity to ask about the progress of the long-rumored sequel Bubba Nosferatu.

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Image via Arnold Wells

At the screening last night it was obvious how much love there is for Angus Scrimm, and his loss really colored the film in a way I didn’t expect, especially with the themes of demensia and mortality. Was that something that became aparent in the editing room?

COSCARELLI: Well, we had pretty much had the film wrapped up by the time he passed away. In fact, David had the – thank God we were able to screen to screen the movie for him and got his blessing. He liked the film, which I know for David was a great relief [Laughs].

DAVID HARTMAN: Absolutely. I did not want to suffer the wrath of The Tall Man [Laughs].

COSCARELLI: But it certainly puts a color on it because certainly for me for decades he’s been a close friend of mine. He was the first adult actor I had ever worked with back in my first movie when I was barely a teenager. And then when we made Phantasm and it became successful – I was in my mid-twenties – the two of us shared this experience that no one else did, because we were with a small distributor at the time called Embassy which believed in promotion and publicity and it was also a regional release. So Angus and I spent a good several months traveling together around the country, I went to Australia with him. And this was back in the day when he would actually go to the interview — If he was here, he would be in the Tall Man suit and with makeup on and everything and they’d take pictures of him. Smartly, by Phantasm II he refused to do that [Laughs].

But we just had so many crazy times in those early periods, and then [he was] such a nice, wonderful guy. I met my future wife and he almost became like – his relationship with my kids is like a grandfatherly type, and Dave knows this too because his daughter also did some fight with one of the dwarf creatures in the film and she got to know Angus.

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Image via AVCO Embassy Pictures

The coolest part about it was that we would go to the conventions and it was also a mystery that here we have this character that the fans are terrified of but all they wanted to do was kiss him and hug him. I don’t know if it’s a way of dealing with the fears of life and death or whatever, and also because he’s just so kindly and wonderful. So this whole process has been we’re making a series of movies about death and we as filmmakers are coming to grips with death. It’s crazy. Crazy.

It was interesting, had sort of assumed this was the finale, and it had that kind of feel to it, but someone asked about a Phantasm 6 and you guys didn’t say no. Do you think it could work without him?

COSCARELLI:  It doesn’t seem like it could, but people were pointing out –After the movie somebody asked, and then Michael Baldwin came to Dave and says “You know, I could see a movie where Mike teams up with Hedge and Rocky and continues the battle.” But…

HARTMAN: I still think there is a story in Mike that needs to be told.

COSCARELLI: That’s possibly true. Never say never. We’re still making sure we get this one launched, and thank God people see the light of yesterday. We were going into it quite nervous because it’s a strange and different movie in a lot of ways, it’s not your typical horror sequel by any means. What I love about what Dave has done is that he definitely grooved into aspects of the characters in terms of Reggie, and all of them, and in many ways kept them consistent and took some of the foibles of the characters and used them. I mean, I love that scene – I think fans and the audience seemed to enjoy it – where Reggie is playing the guitar, being able to remember because he’s always been chasing the ladies of the movie but never getting them.

HARTMAN: And then he almost has her! She actually comes back to him which has never happened. And then he’s an old man and he falls asleep on the couch [Laughs].

COSCARELLI: That played well, I thought.

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Image via Silver Sphere Corporation

I felt it grew really well into what you come to expect from a Phantasm movie, because like you guys said it’s very little budget and that’s – especially in digital I feel – more of a hurdle. But once you get into the spirit of it, that kind of makes it.

HARTMAN: When you’re on a little budget it’s always about the concept and the story. For me personally, I watch low budget films, but it’s the ambition, it’s the passion that goes into it that’s exciting. And taking that and putting a good story on there – before filming I watched Don’s first four Phantasm films over, and over, and over, and over, and it was important to me that this doesn’t become a showcase to show off new technology or new cameras and stuff. I wanted to make sure this movie fits with all the others in a box set on a shelve somewhere. That’s the goal. But I didn’t want it to stand off like, “Oh, and there’s that one.” It has to fit in the world, it absolutely has to.

You really play with Phantasm’s heritage of existing in a questionable space between dreams and reality in a beautiful way by leaning into themes of aging and dementia, how did you guys decide how much you wanted to lean into that aspect this time?

COSCARELLI: I think I can start that off by saying that you brought that up beautifully with a point that I’d forgotten — that is that, I think from the get-go, we were really synchronized in that we were not going to shy away from the age of the actors. We have all gotten older and gotten grayer and you can only go so far where you’re dying everybody’s hair dark and trying to make them unlined faces. I think the breakthrough probably started very early with the concept that Reggie would finally have an opportunity with a really sweet, nice gal and he would sleep through it, not your typical action hero moment but right along with the Reggie that we know and love. And so I think this concept that Dave and I first got into was the idea of — which is a very current concept — what if Reggie, much like Mike in the first film, at least might be excused by an affliction like dementia? Which is another horror story that a certain percentage of our audience, all of us, are gonna face at the end of the day. [Use] that as the explanation why. But Dave was always insistent that we not really divulge which path we’ve chosen, whether Reggie was on a quest, or was he tilting at windmills, or was he in a fantasy dream of a person losing his mind to a terrible decease.

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Image via Silver Sphere Corporation

HARTMAN: You hit the nail on the head there, Don. The surrealness of the first film is all around the innocence of a young boy, and you have that as this catalyst for all these fears that we have. But now that character’s seen so much, four movies, that character has lost that innocence, this character has been damaged and moved into a certain direction and he’s got a goal. Being able to catch some of that innocence in things like Don said, dementia or Alzheimer’s and what we all have to deal with in family members and stuff like that. I’ve had family members like that say some crazy things and part of me is like, “What if that’s what they see? What if that is happening?” But it’s still Don’s movie, I keep saying it, it sometimes has more questions than answers, which I absolutely love. It’s setting up these things that forces you to think after the movie.

COSCARELLI: And another thing Dave was insistent on was also letting the audience see Reggie’s choice. Is Reggie gonna decide, “I’m an old man dying in a rest dump or am I out in the desert by myself or am I fighting a resistance to save the world”? So there are at least three paths he’s on. Which one’s real and which one did Reggie want to be real? It’ll be interesting to see.

HARTMAN: That was the goal. I hope people read into this and enjoy it. There’s more story into this than just a final battle. It’s not War of the Worlds. It’s always been a thinking movie. These movies have always got me thinking and I really appreciate that and wanted to bring that into this. Hopefully, all of the fans think so.

I think it’s a major element of what makes it work, to be honest. It gives it something really grounded. And having dealt with that in my family as well, it’s really effective.

HARTMAN: That’s great to hear. Thank you.

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Image via Silver Sphere Corporation

But there are also giant spheres and lasers and all of that [Laughs].

HARTMAN: We’re still kids at heart [Laughs]. I mean we’re talking about this very deep stuff but yeah you’re getting Don and, “Hey, Don, what if there’s a giant sphere like War of the Worlds? What if we put that in there as well?” Because it is a very deep thing and you don’t want to just bring the whole theater down [Laughs].

How did you guys decide to strike the balance between the two tones?

HARTMAN: Well that’s tough. Honestly I feel because of these characters, again, I’m coming in as an outsider, I grew up with these characters. I think there are certain paths that you know they’re gonna take and certain directions, but Don’s movies I think are always unpredictable. I feel like he leads you one way and suddenly turns it a different way, you think you’re getting one things and then you’re getting something else. I feel like we did that as well and that’s the kind of direction it took. I think it got there kind of fairly naturally.

COSCARELLI: It probably broadened it, because every time you would for a test with giant spheres and things like that because we never had anything like that people would go, “Oh, this is awesome!” [Laughs].

HARTMAN: Right. But in the editing room, like Don has said with screenings and stuff, we started with tests and stuff like that. So we did start with certain scenes; we focused on Reggie, we focused obviously on Reggie’s character quite a bit. We started with those elements and sometimes we worked kind of backward and we were filling in a creating the story. But, again, I feel like it came very naturally jumping back and forth. But I hope it works on screen, I hope you can see where dimensions are changing and stuff like that.

Before they kick me out I have one more question. Bubba Ho-Tep is one of my favorite movies…

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Image via Vitagraph Films

HARTMAN: Absolutely.

COSCARELLI: Who would have ever thought that would work?

It’s the best! And Bruce [Campbell] is having a good moment right now.

COSCARELLI: He is!

Hs there been any movement on Bubba Nosferatu?

COSCARELLI: Well, you know… look, I think he’d like to do it someday. I certainly know I would. I’ve tried a couple of different versions, one was — Joe Lansdale was engaged and I wrote a screenplay and had Paul Giamatti, but Bruce decided he didn’t want to participate and that was a blow. But later we had another round where Joe was going to write a short story sequel that we might try and he never quite finished it. He’s still talking about finishing it maybe as a novel. He never submitted anything for me to read so… The point is that I love the movie too, I’m a fan of that movie and I’d love to see Elvis and other the characters, bring back Jack Kennedy and fight different monsters.

I’m not sure we would be able to keep as much soul that’s in the original movie but you get a lot of fun with it. I’m all for it, from time to time I see Bruce, I haven’t seen him at this convention, I think he’s here today. I also think it could make a great TV series, honestly. You just have a different famous person cycle through every episode.

HARTMAN: [Laughs] The Love Boat version.

COSCARELLI: But thanks so much for the kind words, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it but there’s a really nice Blu-Ray set coming out next month, with some new documentaries with Bruce and I doing interviews, and I think Joe added his own commentary which I’m sure will be interesting.

Phantasm: Remastered and Phantasm: Ravager will land on Digital HD and VOD on October 4th before both open in theaters on October 7th.

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