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A Guide To the Films of Don Coscarelli (in honor of Phantasm 2 on Region 1 DVD next week)

phantasm2aOne common customer question over the years (and especially at our table at Crypticon) has been "When does Phantasm 2 come out on DVD?" Due to some clerical error or arcane rights issue Part 2 had been skipped over, the only one not on DVD in the U.S. We still have our VHS tape and our PAL Code 2 Phantasm box set from Europe, but for those not willing to go those lengths I'm happy to report that the Region 1 DVD finally comes out next Tuesday, September 15th. To mark the occasion here's a chronological, film-by-film overview of the career of director Don Coscarelli, a genre legend and a unique voice in American independent film. Outside of Fangoria Magazine he's never received his proper due, including from us - for some reason he still doesn't have a director's section. JIM THE WORLD'S GREATEST (1976) When he was still a teenager Coscarelli directed this drama, his first collaboration with future Phantasm stars Reggie Bannister and Lawrence Rory Guy (better known as Angus Scrimm). Only 19 when he sold it to Universal, Coscarelli became the youngest director ever to have a feature film distributed by a major studio. Unfortunately it has never been released on video. kennyKENNY & COMPANY (1976) The still incredibly young Coscarelli immediately followed with this entertaining family film, the story of 12-year old Kenny (Dan McCann) and his friends (including future Phantasm protagonist A. Michael Baldwin) and their activities in the several days leading up to Halloween. Bannister shows up in this one too, playing the character Donovan. This one is on DVD, you can find it upstairs in our DRAMA section. PHANTASM (1979) phantasmCoscarelli's iconic horror classic comes from a unique place somewhere between American style goofy home made fun and European style bizarre surrealism. It's shown through the eyes of a kid, Mike (Baldwin), when he accidentally sees some strange happenings at a funeral home. But what starts as a fairly straightforward story about nobody believing what the kid has seen eventually expands to include deadly flying metallic spheres, yellow blood, living severed fingers, body parts that turn into bugs and a plot from another dimension to steal human bodies and crush them into dwarves for manual labor. In other words, there's no other movie anything like this one. A little funny, a lot creepy, it haunts the dreams of many who saw it at a young age and when they watch it again it lives up to their memories. Scrimm plays "the Tall Man" (the evil interdimensional mortician), Bannister plays Reggie (the guitar playing ice cream man, family friend and eventual savior). Find it (and all the other Phantasm movies) in the PSYCHOTRONIC room in the ZOMBIES section to the right of the entrance. THE BEASTMASTER (1982) beastmasterMarc Singer plays Dar, a warrior who can communicate with animals because of a witch's curse when he was in his mother's womb. Along with his friends John Amos, the hawk, the two ferrets and the black panther (actually a tiger painted black) he has to rescue a slave girl (Tanya Roberts) from the hideous sorcerer who caused this whole mess in the first place (an over the top evil Rip Torn). Although it lacks the drive and constant excitement of Phantasm, this sword and sorcery epic is full of weird Coscarelli beasts and gimmicks. (Note: the movie was taken away from Coscarelli in editing, and he did not return for the sequels.) Find it in the PSYCHOTRONIC room in the FANTASY section (we also have three seasons of the TV series in our FANTASY TV section on the outside of the room). PHANTASM II (1988) phantasm2With a little bit bigger budget (courtesy of Universal) Coscarelli got much more impressive special effects and turned Phantasm into more of an action story. James LeGros replaces Baldwin as Mike when we pick up with him after years in a mental institution. He escapes, convinces Reggie (still played by Bannister, fortunately) to join him and follow the Tall Man's trail around the country, killing weird monsters with power tools and booby traps. This is where the balding man's man Reggie really broke out into a b-movie icon, using his trademark quadruple-barreled shotgun to shoot killer dwarves out of trees. SURVIVAL QUEST (1989) The only post-1976 Coscarelli movie to not have monsters in it tells the story of a service that teaches you to believe in yourself by testing your wilderness survival skills. survivalquestUnfortunately an ex-convict in the group (Dermot Mulroney) is involved in a fight and accidental shooting with a paramilitary group traveling the same mountains, and it turns into a more literal quest for survival. Lance Henriksen, in a rare leading man role, plays Hank, the wise but tough-as-nails Survival Quest guide and guru. Bannister has a cameo as a pilot. A 30-year old Catherine Keener is also in the group, one of her first major roles. This is a really under-appreciated action adventure movie. Find it upstairs in the sadly-neglected ADVENTURE section. PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD (1994) The Phantasm series continues in a much sillier but incredibly entertaining direction. By this point the Tall Man has decimated much of the country, so our heroes travel through ghost towns trying to track him. One section of the movie, about a kid (Kevin Connors) defending his house after the deaths of his parents, plays like Home Alone with hard-R violence. Reggie and Mike (suddenly played by A. Michael Baldwin again) are joined by this kid (who is a sharp-shooter, knows how to drive a car and sometimes wears a dollface mask to scare away burglars) and a nunchaka-spinning black lesbian militant (Glory Lynne Henry). We learn more and weirder information about the metal spheres and the Tall Man, who implies that he's grooming Mike to some day replace him. It's a rare case of a horror series that seems to naturally expand its mythology from sequel to sequel rather than start over with a new rehash each time out. PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION (1998) Arguably the weakest of the Phantasm series, but it's also the weirdest and most serious since the first one. Coscarelli goes deep into the Phantasm mythology and unwisely gives the Tall Man human origins. More interestingly though he has Michael realizing he's becoming a Tall Man and attempting to hang himself. This ties into a flashback of young Mike trying and failing to lynch the Tall Man, which Coscarelli had shot and never used for the original Phantasm. It's kind of miraculous that he actually had good deleted scenes to use - it ends up giving the movie sort of a 7 Up feel because you see A. Michael Baldwin jump between 16 years old and 35. And he really is starting to look like Angus Scrimm! I think Part 4 answers some questions we didn't need the answers to, but luckily it leaves what will most likely be the last installment with a mysterious, possibly circular conclusion. Oh yeah, and this happens: phantasmoblivion BUBBA HO-TEP (2002) By the new millennium it would've been easy to write Coscarelli off as just the guy who does Phantasm movies, but here he is with another unlikely classic. Based on a short story by writer and Martial Arts Hall of Famer Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba is about an elderly Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) residing in a nursing home. The guy who died was actually an impersonator the real Elvis had switched places with to avoid the bubbaspotlight. Now the aging King of Rock 'n Roll uncovers the secret of an ancient Egyptian mummy sucking the souls out of other residents of the home, and with the help of a black man who may or may not be John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis!) he sets out to save the day. Like Coscarelli, Campbell's genre respectability moved up a notch with this movie. Outside of his iconic role as Ash in the Evil Dead trilogy he was very prolific, but usually coasting off of a similar persona. Here he has his greatest acting performance, having to do a touching portrait of a man facing his mortality from behind a funny Elvis impression, not to mention all the latex and sideburns. It's also pretty incredible that Davis was so game to play JFK. The veteran actor and director brings an unexpected sweetness by treating the Elvis-Kennedy friendship very seriously. Bubba is a movie no other director would've made. It could easily be a cheap joke, but Coscarelli gives it surprising dignity and subtlety. Its elderly heroes don't turn into Rambo (or Ash) either, they have to use their walkers when going after the mummy. Fortunately he's even older than they are so it's not insurmountable. MASTERS OF HORROR: INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD (2005) Coscarelli's most recent work was the premiere (and I think best) episode of the Showtime anthology series where famous horror directors like John Carpenter and Dario Argento contributed hour long horror films usually based on short stories. Coscarelli chose another weird Lansdale story, this one about a woman named Ellen (Bree Turner) who gets in a car accident, follows a blood trail off the road and winds up incidentonandoffchased and abducted by a monster-faced serial killer. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Ellen was once married to an abusive militia type (Ethan Embry) who taught her combat and survival techniques that she can use against her captor. Scrimm shows up in a brilliant performance as a victim who's lost his mind and the horror gets weirder and weirder like some lost Tobe Hooper classic. That might be enough but it's the punchline twist ending that takes it over the top. Most of the "masters" struggled working with a TV crew and schedule to basically make a short, low budget feature, and mostly had mediocre results. But Coscarelli's is worthy of his filmography. In the future: BUBBA NOSFERATU Initially a joke at the end of the Bubba Ho-Tep credits, Coscarelli is now actively developing a prequel about Elvis (fake Elvis?) fighting vampires on the set of one of his movies. Since Campbell disagreed with the direction of the story Coscarelli has recruited Ron Perlman to join Paul Giamatti as Colonel Tom Parker. Giamatti told Ain't It Cool News , "I saw Ho-Tep when it came out and I used to say in interviews when people asked me which director I wanted to work with I would say 'Don Coscarelli' and nine times out of ten, they would go 'Who the hell is that?'... His movies are amazing. They are totally unique." We here at Scarecrow agree with the Academy Award nominee, and more than a couple of us have gone on Coscarelli binges watching all of the above titles (except that first one). He has a consistently entertaining and distinctive body of work, so we recommend you do the same.