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

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He tried it. It didn't work very well.

Did it discharge?

No, thankfully not.

Thank God!

I don't know why he thought it was a good idea. There seems to be a strong "brother theme" in the Phantasm films, even though Jody dies in the first one. Do you have siblings? Where did this whole thing come from?

That might be the root of it. I have a sister and it's just not the same. I think that I always wanted to have a brother. Jim the World's Greatest, the first film that I made, while it was successful in some respects - in that we got distribution and that helped me to get money to make a second one - it had some flaws. But one of the better things it had was a relationship between two brothers. It was a very similar type of thing, only the brother was just a little younger. I saw that it worked in that film and I thought that I could make it work in Phantasm. Also, I got to know and work with Reggie Bannister on those films. He had such a warm, engaging personality. The idea that these two brothers didn't have any parents - he just melded into that. It was a nice little threesome that they had going there.

With Phantasm IV: Oblivion, there is a sense of "getting the band back together." I was startled by how these actors, portraying identical characters, step into these roles two decades later.

Part of it is that the characters they play aren't far from themselves. Truthfully, Reggie is that character in real life. He's the coolest guy that you'd ever want to meet. He's a genuinely nice guy and a very loyal person. The guy that played the older brother, he was sort of a non-actor when we started and he didn't really pursue acting, so he drew a lot out of his own persona.

That's Bill Thornbury?

Yeah, another really nice guy.

How did you end-up casting A. Michael Baldwin?

He had been in my second movie. It's light-years better than Jim the World's Greatest. If you ever get a chance to see it... it's very hard to find because it's never been out on video, if you can believe it. I'm really going to try to get it out on DVD. All of these actors are in it. It's about these two boys in suburban life. A slice-of-life in a twelve-year-old's life.

This is Kenny & Company?

Yeah. Michael Baldwin plays the best friend of the lead character. Reggie Bannister was the teacher at the elementary school. That's how I met Michael. I think he's one of the best kid actors that I've ever seen. I was so lucky to get him. He really made Phantasm work. It wasn't until later... one of the interesting things that I realized about why the movie was successful - I always used to think that it was the horror, the ball, the Tall Man - but we have a massive fan base of people who come up to me and they go, "I saw that film when I was thirteen and it had an impact on me." In a weird way, the movie is empowering for young teen boys which I didn't realize until many years later how important that was.

I can second that. I was ten at the time. One of the things that I see in your films that's rarely present in the work of other American directors that dabble in horror is your touch of surrealism. Your mixing of dream-like qualities with "reality," which reminds me of the Italian horror work of Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi.

The only Italian director, other than Bertolucci - who doesn't really do any of that stuff - that I was influenced strongly by at the time of making the first Phantasm was Dario Argento and Suspiria. I love that picture and it really had an impact. There was another film that has elements of the dwarf-thing that I took - a Nicolas Roeg film called Don't Look Now.

That's what I was thinking.

Sometimes I feel weird talking about these films because I feel like I steal from them, but I guess that's how everybody makes their movies. Another movie that really had an impact on me at the time was the Polanski picture with Catherine Deneuve...

Repulsion?

It's a great film and so many elements of that movie knocked me out. I filtered that through my own Southern California lifestyle and came up with Phantasm.

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