Director Don Coscarelli On The The 4K Restoration Of 'Phantasm' And How J.J. Abrams Made It Happen [SXSW Interview]

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."

phantasm restoration

He got me on the phone with his head of production, Ben Rosenblatt and they came up with a really clever idea. Whenever they had downtime working on their Star Wars and Star Treks and stuff like that, they'd bring me over. They had this really high-end Mystica finishing system and if we could just get a laser scan made of the original camera negative it could go into the workstation. So every month or two, I'd get a phone call: "C'mon! We've got time tonight!" The guys would be doing the color correction and the scratch removal.

So it was very much a passion project for them.

Oh, yeah. Completely. There was no profit incentive whatsoever. For the price of peanuts, I got a Wizard of Oz-level restoration of the original movie. What's maybe even better than the visual side, and the visuals look great... We were finishing up the visuals and I was walking through Bad Robot one day and J.J. comes up and says "Don! What about the audio? We have to restore the audio!" He was insistent and it turns out there was this really talented audio engineer named Robby Stambler and he was a Phantasm geek too! He took the audio in his workstation, so every other month he'd be spending all night working on that. The audio and the music just sound gorgeous.

At first, I thought this all sounded a little strange, but when I sat down and thought about it, I realized of course J.J. Abrams is a Phantasm fan. He loves his mysteries and Phantasm is all about one mystery unfolding after another. Just when you think you have it figured out, here's another new box full of mysteries!

Yeah, we didn't provide too many answers. We have Phantasm part five, Ravager, coming out very soon and I'm getting a lot of these emails that say "Now this one answers everything, right?" Well, they'll just have to see the movie.

I don't want answers! I love how the whole series feels like you're trapped in a bad dram and can't get out of it.

The way that you just described it is the perfect setting for a horror movie. I should go back and make a new movie. Trapped in a dream you can't get out of. One of the real joys... I thought yeah, I'll make horror movies, but I never thought I'd make a living at it and then make a career out of it. Nobody said you're going to make movies for this fanbase that is really intelligent and really likes to examine and dissect your work over decade-long periods. Sometimes I'll sit down with somebody who's passionate about it, and I probably shouldn't go on the record about this, and give me an interpretation of the movie that is far and away better than anything that I was thinking about.

That's what good art does. It encourages people to think and examine and tear things apart.

Well, you used the A-word. I can't use that, but thank you.

I actually saw your most recent film, John Dies at the End, at SXSW a few years ago. It was the world premiere, I think.

Yes, it was a really nice screening, a lot of nice reactions.

And that was another film that was very much in your wheelhouse. Are you comfortable being that horror guy? The Phantasm guy?

Here's the thing. When the first Phantasm came out, I was very resistant to being pigeonholed into it. But it's hard to get funding that isn't genre-related. Then I'd think, why would I want to make a movie outside of the genre, anyway? Then I wouldn't have the good fans I would be making the movie for. It would be a more general and a little less insightful group. I don't see a downside to it. The great part is that I can go with the actors to these horror conventions and meet the fans directly and talk about the movies. And I'll be honest, meeting those fans, especially once the internet started up, directly influenced part four and part five.

The interesting thing is that John Dies at the End was a complete internet fabrication. This is an absolute true story and it's shocking that it was never marketed, because it would have been the greatest marketing hook ever, was that this movie was really decided by a robot at Amazon. It sent me an email saying "You bought this zombie fiction book and this science fiction book, you'll love John Dies at the End." It was right! Some algorithm chose the movie! But that's off on a different subject.

You've been making independent films for decades now. What's changed since you were a young guy making Phantasm on a shoestring to budget to now, when you're making movies like John Dies at the End

Now I'm working on a relatively shoestring budget!

How has the filmmaking world evolved for you?

The technology is so available and so easy and so much more simple than it used to be. You don't have to wait for the film to develop, you can do all of the editing at your keyboard. The ease of that is great. Also, the rise of the internet has made it easy to find your community or your tribe or whatever. The real challenge is that the modes of distribution have changed. So it's harder to make a buck, honestly. The demise of the DVD business...that was a business. You could sell the DVDs for twenty dollars and they only cost one dollar. There was a lot of profit in them. Now they license them to Netflix and get a nickel a view or something like that. Orders of magnitude less money. Plus, with the rise of digital stuff, it's been a democratization. Millions of people are making movies. There's a lot more competition in a funny way. It's a different time and a different way, but it's really great. With John Dies at the End, to have access to those digital tools let me do things that I couldn't even dream when I was a young filmmaker.

phantasm restorationAre there any young horror filmmakers working right now that you admire?

Oh, yeah! Absolutely. I'm a huge fan of [You're Next director] Adam Wingard. I love his movies. And I just saw that movie The Witch the other day.

The Witch is great.

It's a great movie. That's the cool thing about horror. While we're talking right now, there's some young guy out there making a horror movie and, a year or two from now, we'll be like "The future of horror is here!"

That's part of the fun of the genre. The genre is the star.

That's absolutely true.

You don't need major stars. You can build whatever you want out of it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's crazy how that works.

Is there a definitive release date for Phantasm 5 yet?

No, it's not set yet. It's coming very imminently. It'll be very, very soon. It's very exciting. It's been a long haul. It was pretty much ready to go and then whole rollout of the remaster kind of slowed everything up. But now we're planning to start screening and do some actual theatrical dates with them. The thing about the remaster, and Ravager, is that you have to see them in a theater. So we have to get our dates lined up. I definitely believe that the folks who were fans of the original movie and the series are really going to be excited to see the new movie. We didn't have many resources, but character-wise, it's the fitting conclusion to everything. It's Angus' last screen performance. We shot all of his sequences when he was healthy and vibrant. He's amazing in the role. Reggie's back, he kicks ass, he's got his four barrel shotgun, he meets this girl, you know it's not going to end well, and there's the bloodiest sphere-kills. The bodies hit the floor and the blood flows! That's pretty cool. I think that it's a fitting conclusion for Phantasm.

There's nothing horror fans like more than ranking and comparing long-running horror series and it's so fun that you've made all of these. It's special. It's not like Hellraiser, where there's a revolving door of directors churning them out. Even if you prefer one Phantasm movie over another, they're all Coscarelli films.

That is so nice of you to say. It'll be interesting. I haven't sat down watched one through five yet, but one day, I plan to watch them in sequence and see how that works.