Don Coscarelli

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994, Don Coscarelli)

I watched Phantasm III because I wanted to see what Coscarelli would do without studio interference on a Phantasm sequel.

Apparently, what he decided to do was add an annoying little kid who kills people (they’re bad people, but they’re people just the same–and it’s never clear he was in any physical danger) and a black kung fu girl then turn his mostly absent from the screen protagonist (A. Michael Baldwin returns to the role after losing it to James Le Gros for the previous sequel) into some sort of Luke Skywalker stand in… right down to the black outfit.

Most of those additions could be forgiven, I suppose, had Coscarelli gotten good actors. The little kid–played by Kevin Connors–is awful. But the girl, played by Gloria Lynne Henry, is worse; so it seems like Connors is giving a better performance. And Baldwin isn’t any great improvement over Le Gros. Phantasm III might be interesting to look at in comparison to the first, in terms of Baldwin’s performance as a kid and as an adult.

I’m not even sure it counts as a horror movie. Without the yellow blood, occasional zombie and the flying spheres, it’s just an action movie. Reggie Bannister makes a hilarious lead for such a film, but it’s clear in a lot of scenes he’s a lot better than the script.

Coscarelli apparently has said he was out of ideas for this film and it shows… his demystifying of the Phantasm lore is particularly unfortunate.



Written, directed and produced by Don Coscarelli; director of photography, Chris Chomyn; edited by Norman Buckley; music by Fred Myrow and Christopher L. Stone; production designer, Ken Aichele; released by Universal Home Entertainment.

Starring Reggie Bannister (Reggie), A. Michael Baldwin (Mike), Bill Thornbury (Jody), Gloria Lynne Henry (Rocky), Kevin Connors (Tim), Cindy Ambuehl (Edna), John Davis Chandler (Henry), Brooks Gardner (Rufus) and Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man).

Phantasm II (1988, Don Coscarelli)

The first Phantasm wasn’t just an exercise in inventive low budget filmmaking, it dealt with the cultural fear of cemeteries. The second film has no such allusions. In fact, it’s just an example of bad low budget filmmaking. Clearly–and one can just google for more information–there were a lot of behind the scenes squabbles between director Coscarelli and Universal Pictures… but knowing the reasons for the problems doesn’t make them go away.

First and foremost is James Le Gros. He worked again after Phantasm II, which doesn’t seem possible. He adds a cartoony atmosphere to it–a way too buff (considering he’d just spent seven years in a mental institution) blond-haired emo kid. It’s such a terrible role–Coscarelli, regardless of studio interference, shares some of the blame as his writing for the character is atrocious–I’m using the term “emo” for the first time on The Stop Button.

I think.

But Coscarelli doesn’t only write bad stuff here–he writes lots of good stuff for Reggie Bannister, lots of funny material. The sex scene between Bannister and Samantha Phillips (who’s more annoyingly mediocre than bad) is absolutely hilarious, as she reveals she has a fetish for bald men–Bannister’s reaction is fantastic.

The ostensible female lead–Paula Irvine–is pretty much a lame eighties ingΓ©nue, but not bad.

And Coscarelli also turns Angus Scrimm’s previously nearly silent and very scary Tall Man into a talkative and lame eighties horror movie villain.

Some good effects–but otherwise disastrous.



Written and directed by Don Coscarelli; director of photography, Daryn Okada; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Fred Myrow and Christopher L. Stone; production designer, Philip Duffin; produced by Roberto A. Quezada; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Le Gros (Mike), Reggie Bannister (Reggie), Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man), Paula Irvine (Liz), Samantha Phillips (Alchemy), Kenneth Tigar (Father Meyers), Ruth C. Engel (Grandma), Mark Anthony Major (Mortician), Rubin Kushner (Grandpa) and Stacey Travis (Jeri).

Phantasm (1979, Don Coscarelli)

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is not any kind of cinematic wonder. Coscarelli is a decent director in terms of composition and his screenplay has some inventive moments. Mostly, the writing credit is due because of his enthusiasm for the content. There’s nothing like seeing adults defer to the wisdom of a teenage boy–and A. Michael Baldwin pulls off the performance quite well. In Phantasm‘s world of approximately fifteen speaking parts and maybe three non-speaking (maybe), Baldwin runs the film.

Lots of Phantasm plays like an adolescent fantasy. Even ignoring Baldwin following brother Bill Thornbury on a date and watching him fool around with the girl (unintentionally preventing her from killing him), Phantasm‘s full of stuff for boys. There’s a gun porn scene, which is hilarious in how lame it comes across–Thornbury telling Baldwin to shoot to kill and so on–it’s hard to fault Phantasm for such tangents, because the whole thing is just goofy.

Maybe Phantasm isn’t scary, but it’s cool. Bad guy Angus Scrimm mysteriously appearing with crazy backlighting, cool. The silver ball thing with a fountain of blood spurting out–the design of this killing device itself–cool. Phantasm makes up for the lack of artistry with some good ideas and that enthusiasm. Coscarelli somehow transcends suspension of disbelief here–knowing how a shot works, understanding the sound effects’ effect–makes Phantasm all the more enjoyable. It’s an admirable film–Coscarelli just as easily couldn’t have pulled it off.

But Coscarelli doesn’t exactly know how to use his budget. Phantasm, effectively had double the budget of Halloween (Carpenter spent half just on the Panavision camera). Apparently, Phantasm was originally three hours long–there are signs throughout of cuts with one character nonsensically disappearing and another popping in for a moment almost as a gag–so some of the budget could have been used on those lost minutes.

The acting is hit and miss. Baldwin’s solid and believable, but not exactly good. The script’s a little too absurd. The same goes for Thornbury, whose likability is his greatest asset. It even gets him through this strange little porch-sitting guitar playing scene. Reggie Bannister plays their sidekick in the film’s most humorous role. It kind of works, it mostly doesn’t. Part of the budgetary slash editing problems is Bannister frequently just appears out of nowhere. Most of the supporting cast is mediocre, with Terrie Kalbus giving the film’s worst performance. Scrimm’s a fun villain–and figuring out why he had to be tall actually made me feel pretty smart.

Phantasm succeeds in spite of itself, because it is so impossible to take seriously, much less to be scared by it. But in not being disturbing, it offers a rather pleasant viewing experience, warts, wind machines, reused footage and all.



Written, produced, edited, photographed and directed by Don Coscarelli; music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave; production designer, Kate Coscarelli; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring A. Michael Baldwin (Mike Pearson), Bill Thornbury (Jody Pearson), Reggie Bannister (Reggie), Kathy Lester (Lady in Lavender), Terrie Kalbus (Fortuneteller’s Granddaughter), Lynn Eastman (Sally), David Arntzen (Toby), Bill Cone (Tommy), Laura Mann (Double Lavender), Mary Ellen Shaw (Fortuneteller) and Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man).

Bubba Ho-tep (2002, Don Coscarelli)

I wanted to see Bubba Ho-Tep back when I first read about it because it sounded weird–Bruce Campbell as an old Elvis versus a mummy with Ossie Davis as JFK as his sidekick. The pairing of Davis and Campbell is weird enough–they seem at odds, style-wise, not to mention Davis is actually old while Campbell’s covered in make-up. The mummy aspect is a bit of a joke but also a bit not. It comes down to what’s so surprising about Bubba Ho-Tep. It’s not really a horror movie. It’s about old Elvis Presley in a rest home. For the first twenty minutes, Campbell isn’t even getting out of bed. He just lays there and we get a look at this feeble old man, plagued with regret.

Bubba Ho-Tep is all about Campbell’s performance. It’s great–and it’s a complete surprise, given I never think of Campbell as a particularly clever actor. His Elvis captures a basic apprehensiveness (everyone thinks he’s just an Elvis impersonator who’s confused), an obscene grandiosity (it’s Elvis) and a sincere sadness (Elvis wishing he could see his daughter). I’m not sure if Bubba Ho-Tep takes advantage of the viewer’s knowledge–the daughter stuff is sad because we know it’s Lisa Marie–but it’s exploitative. I can imagine if she saw this film, she’d be incredibly uncomfortable; the line between a fictional representation of a person who died some time ago (but didn’t) and that real person disappears from Campbell’s first second on screen. His performance is wonderful.

As the sidekick, who thinks he’s JFK (Elvis thinks he’s nuts), Ossie Davis is great, but he’s basically Ossie Davis playing a guy who thinks he’s JFK. It’s his scenes with Campbell though, where it really feels like two old men with nothing but regret and a longing to have been better men.

Don Coscarelli’s direction is restrained for the most part (there are some fast cuts to illustrate Elvis’s impaired perception) and his eye for the scenes is great. He creates this world where Campbell can be old Elvis (and there can be a mummy, but the mummy isn’t as important).

Other great things include Ella Joyce as Elvis’s nurse. She and Campbell’s scenes together are really nice, especially with the mood Coscarelli gives them.

Bubba Ho-Tep‘s probably the only way to tell a story about Elvis Presley alive today and have it be a successful, meaningful story. It’s good stuff.



Directed by Don Coscarelli; screenplay by Coscarelli, based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale; director of photography, Adam Janiero; edited by Donald Milne and Scott J. Gill; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Daniel Vecchione; produced by Jason R. Savage and Coscarelli; released by American Cinematheque.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Elvis), Ossie Davis (Jack), Ella Joyce (The Nurse), Heidi Marnhout (Callie) and Bob Ivy (Bubba Ho-Tep).

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