Elvis, JFK and the Tall Man: a Talk with Don Coscarelli

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Interview By Jonathan Marlow

"I think that I always wanted to have a brother."

In 1979, a 21-year-old filmmaker warped countless young minds with a terrifying bit of surreality called Phantasm. A quarter of a century later, he's entertaining us with a tale of Elvis and JFK, both alive (yet feeling their age), as crime-fighters. Jonathan Marlow finally caught up with the director on the eve of Bubba Ho-tep's release, long after Don Coscarelli appeared with Bruce Campbell at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival in 2003...

 


 

It's always a great time appearing with Bruce. You just sort of get him going and then stay out of the way. He's unbelievable in front of a crowd. He really should have been a stand-up comic. That was a fun time, that festival.

You were born in Libya?

It's true. My father was in the Air Force and was stationed over there. For some reason, he decided to bring my mother over there when she was pregnant. Craziness. It's a third world country now but, back then, it must have been a fifth world country. I was only there until I was two and then we came back over. I really didn't catch much of the culture. I do hope to go back now that the relations are warming. It's something I've been waiting for years to happen...

...and shake hands with Muammar Gaddafi?

I don't know about that! My father talked about the great beaches. He said the beaches are great on the Mediterranean. It's an interesting city [Tripoli]. That's the African part of my life.

I should mention that Angus Scrimm is the Max Schreck of my generation.

[laughs] I'm going to tell him that! He's a great guy. In real life, he is so unlike the character that he plays. He's distinguished, quite funny and kind.

Before Phantasm, he first starred in an earlier film of yours - Jim the World's Greatest. How did you end up meeting Angus?

He was the first real actor I ever directed, the first professional actor who had appeared in anything. Honestly, the source of his characterization of the Tall Man comes out of that fact. I was really young when we made this film. It was almost a semi-student film. I was really intimidated by him. We were so disorganized. We'd call him down to shoot. He'd drive down, an hour drive to our location, and in a dingy apartment in Long Beach, and we'd stick him in a back bedroom at eight in the morning. We'd be shooting all day and we'd never get to his scenes. At about six in the evening I'd have to go back there and tell him that we weren't going to use him. He'd give me this look, this scowl. I think he even raised his eyebrow like the Tall Man. I'd be, "Ah, excuse me... but we won't... be able to... use you... today." "You're NOT?" Out of that, I thought that he'd make a great villain in something. I think that's where that character came from.

He gets to display some of his acting chops in the later Phantasms. In addition to the Tall Man, he plays the polite southerner Jebediah Morningside and what appears to be a Civil War doctor in the fourth film.

He's got a lot of range.

Thanks to you, my brother tried the shotgun shell/hammer trick.

You know, for twenty years I've been waiting... seriously, for a year or two after that movie came out, I thought, "Some kid's going to kill himself and it's going to be my fault." I never heard ever of that happening. Honestly, you're the first one that I've ever heard. He really did try it?

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