Director Don Coscarelli on the the 4K Restoration of ‘Phantasm’ and How J.J. Abrams Made It Happen [SXSW Interview]
Posted on Monday, March 14th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
You wouldn’t expect a man who built his career on a horror franchise about a supernatural undertaker who plots to take over the world through a sinister plot that involves grave-robbing and weaponized metal spheres to be the nicest and most straightforward person in the world, but director Don Conscarelli fits the bill.
The director of Phantasm and its four sequels stopped by Austin for the 2016 SXSW Film Festival, where the new 4K restoration of the original 1979 horror classic is set to screen. It turns out that Mr. Coscarelli has fans in high places, namely J.J. Abrams and various employees of his Bad Robot production company, who have spent the past 18 months meticulously restoring this beloved cult classic. Now, after decades of being a cult gem appreciated by a small group of diehard fans, Phantasm is being re-introduced to the world with the help of one of the world’s biggest filmmakers.
In advance of tonight’s screening of the restored Phantasm, I sat down with Coscarelli to chat about how Bad Robot got involved, the legacy of the series, and how the landscape of indie horror filmmaking has changed.
I haven’t had a chance to see the remastered version yet, but all of my friends who saw it at BNAT said it was amazing.
That’s nice to hear. Obviously, I was a little concerned. The best part about the screening though…with this remastering situation, you have to be cognizant of, and I probably shouldn’t say this on the record, the George Lucas syndrome of over-restoring and changing things too much. There were no visual effects in Phantasm because they were all practical effects, but there’s one practical effect in Phantasm that always just killed me and I thought “Ugh, I’d like to fix that!” And so I did and screened it at BNAT and nobody mentioned it or noticed it! So it’s like “Yes!” Because I was afraid somebody was going to be like “They changed that thing!” but it was done very subtly. So nobody saw it.
There’s a way to do that kind of stuff tastefully. I’m thinking of the restored versions of the original Star Trek series that came out a few years ago.
What was most beautiful about those was the contrast. The blacks weren’t all milky, they were rich. And the captain’s uniform stood out quite brilliantly.
Phantasm has this small but extremely dedicated following of horror fans.
That is true!
It’s not something you often hear brought up in the same sentence as J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot.
It is strange.
How did this come about? How did they get involved in restoring your movie?
What happened was…Well, going way back, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that when I made Phantasm, I didn’t know it, but I was not making a horror film. I was making a young teen male empowerment film. Because I’m meeting all these guys in their thirties and forties and fifties who the film back when they were twelve and thirteen and it had an impact on them. I guess J.J. must have been one of those guys. I’m not sure, but he saw it when he was young and it stuck with him.
I got a phone call from him about eleven or twelve years ago, just out of the blue. “Hi, I’m J.J. I’m a TV producer and I love Phantasm!” So we talked about it and he had questions and he was starting this new show Alias at the time and I guess there were some guys in the writer’s room there who were fans of the movie also. So every once in awhile I would send them a poster or a CD record album and they’d get excited. And then I introduced J.J. to [Phantasm series star] Angus Scrimm and he put Angus into the Alias series and gave him this recurring role. Which was really just one of the nicest things, because Angus just really loved working on that show. I mean, here he was, making all of these lower budgeted horror movies and now he’s got this co-starring role in a big Hollywood TV series. He loved every minute of it. He developed a friendship with J.J. and it was really wonderful.
So anyway, we’d stay in touch and he was obviously busy working on some great movies and TV series. And then out of the blue, about a year and a half ago, I got an email from him about wanting to screen Phantasm over at his company, Bad Robot. He wanted me to come do a Q&A. I guess there were a lot of folks who worked there who had never seen the movie and J.J. wanted to share it with them. The problem was that I only had this 35mm print that was pretty scratched and not that great and the old standard def DVD, which looked really good at the time that we made it, but it was not HD. He couldn’t believe that! He said “We’ve got to fix that.”