When someone says the word “franchise” or “series” to a horror fan, inevitably that fan will immediately think of Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween. Jason, Freddy, and Michael have been infamous horror genre boogeyman for approaching forty years. They are the next generation’s Dracula, Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster. But they are also, with all due respect, half-ideas and whisper-down-the-alleys. Their imperfectly perfect originals (each film for different reasons) have been fleshed out, explored, expanded upon, and exploited with multitudes of sequels and remakes, none of which had the input from the creative team responsible for bringing the groundbreaking original to screens. Their tangential mythologies have traversed such differing directions that they eventually no longer embodied what their original creators had established.
That cannot be said for the Phantasm series, which has seen the same writer/director on all four films, as well as most of the cast. In 1979, series creator Don Coscarelli unleashed upon the world an absurd and bizarre fever dream called Phantasm. And its main cast of A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, and the immeasurable Angus Scrimm have been along for the ride ever since. (Hat tip to James LeGros in Phantasm II, a temporary and studio-mandated diversion.)
Those other horror franchises have been lucky enough and beloved enough to receive respectful and definitive retrospectives with an assemblage of books (Crystal Lake Memories; The Nightmare Never Ends: The Official History of Freddy Krueger and The Nightmare on Elm Street Films) and video documentaries (Halloween: 25 Years of Terror; The Psycho Legacy).
Up to this point, beyond special features on DVD releases, no such attention has ever been paid to the Phantasm series, consisting of the original, Phantasm II, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, and Phantasm: Oblivion. Enter Dustin McNeill, owner of the Phantasm Archives, moderator of the Phantasm Community, longtime Phantasm fan, and now author, who has penned Phantasm Exhumed: The Unauthorized Companion, now available from Harker Press. In the author’s own words, Phantasm Exhumed is “a meticulously researched look at the chronological day-by-day making of the four Phantasm films from script page to world premiere as told through the stories and anecdotes of cast, crew, producers and effects makers. In addition to the four film sections, Phantasm Exhumed contains a Primordium chapter that covers in less detail the making of Don Coscarelli’s first two films, Jim the World’s Greatest and Kenny & Company…The book also benefits greatly from the inclusion of rare and unpublished journals by Angus Scrimm and Kristen Deem that collectively span all four films.”
To quote the book’s author, let’s do a little more digging…
Cut Print Film: At what age did you discover the weird and wild world of Phantasm? Where were you, and which film was your first?
Dustin McNeill (DM): I was fifteen when I happened upon the original at my local video store. I thought it was terrific, but never gave any thought to there being sequels. When I discovered two years later that sequels existed, I very quickly tracked them down and thought they were just as great. Phantasm: Oblivion is my absolute favorite sequel. Parts II and III I dig almost equally, with a slight edge going to Phantasm II.
Cut Print Film: What was it about the Phantasm series that drew you in?
DM: The Tall Man! What a great horror villain! He barely spoke, but when he did I hung on his every word. I immediately recognized that the series wasn’t spoon-feeding the audience answers about him or the other weird goings-on. The mythology required that you figure out certain things for yourself. I loved that.
Cut Print Film: I remember reading your excellent Phantasm article in a 2009 issue of HorrorHound Magazine. Was this you testing the waters for a run at a potential Phantasm book? Or did writing the article parlay into the idea that you could potentially write an entire series retrospective?
DM: Thanks for the kind words. It came together very quickly and I would’ve loved to have had more time on it. In 2009, I was just beginning work on my book when the HorrorHound opportunity presented itself. I wasn’t really sure what the focus of my book was yet, though I sensed there was a huge demand for it. That the issue completely sold out and is now only available from collectors reinforced to me that there is a major audience waiting. That doesn’t happen to every HorrorHound issue.
Cut Print Film: Though Phantasm isn’t as well-known a horror franchise as Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, phans have had the opportunity over the years to delve into publications like Fangoria, or your HorrorHound, or the expansive documentaries found on special edition video releases, to access a wealth of information on the making of the Phantasm films. What does your book offer that previous sources haven’t?
DM: Great question. Everything you’ve read or seen about Phantasm so far has been in a general sense. Everything. My book takes a very detailed, chronological look at the making of these four films… meaning I take you back to March 20, 1977, when they shot the Tall Man chasing Mike through Morningside Mortuary for Phantasm. Or January 5, 1987, when they filmed Mike and Reggie raiding the hardware store for supplies for Phantasm II. Or February 23, 1993, when they filmed the Demon Nurse’s attack on Mike and Reggie for Phantasm III. Or November 22, 1997, when the Tall Man tried to remove the sphere from Mike’s head in Phantasm: Oblivion. Basically, this book is really digging deep with the details.
A huge inspiration for me in taking this direction was J.W. Rinzler’s fantastic books on the makings of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Being able to excerpt Angus Scrimm’s unpublished Phantasm set journals also help set this book apart from everything that has come before. I think phans are going to really enjoy seeing those.
Cut Print Film: And you managed to attract previous members of the Phantasm phamily who have never before shared their experiences working on the films.
DM: Yes, very much so. I was surprised to be the first person to interview a number of people associated with the series. Ken Jones, the original sphere victim, has never had the opportunity to speak publicly about Phantasm. There are also people who’ve shared their experiences before, but not often and not in a long, long time, such as Kevin Connors and Gloria Lynne-Henry (Tim and Rocky from Phantasm III).
Cut Print Film: Don Coscarelli declined involvement in the book. Why did he refrain?
DM: I can only speculate. I know he heard about the project years ago before I approached him, which did not bode well. Prior to the book, my main communication with Don were emails asking that I remove information or videos from my website, the Phantasm Archives, when I was posting news too early or something they wanted to save for a future DVD release. So I was never tight with him like I was the cast. Obviously, it would have been incredible to involve him. I imagine he will eventually read it and I hope he will like it. It is, after all, a warm tribute to his work.
Cut Print Film: Besides Don, were there any other individuals from Phantasm history who proved elusive that you wish you could have interviewed?
DM: Willard Green, father of the original silver sphere! I grabbed a local fortuneteller and attempted a séance in hopes of getting an interview, but nothing came of it. Sadly, Green died before the original Phantasm saw release. He never had the opportunity to see his work on the big screen.
Cut Print Film: I was glad to see you interviewed Kenneth Tigar, who played Father Meyers in Phantasm 2. I love that guy!
DM: Yes, Father Meyers is in here. Kenneth was terrific and had some great things to say about making Phantasm II. Of his character’s silver-sphere demise, he said, “It was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done in my entire career.” I was excited to see him appear in The Avengers shortly after our interview. He played one of the few mortals that ever stood up to Loki!
Cut Print Film: The book includes some pretty rare and never-before-seen photographs from the productions of the Phantasm films. These don’t look like publicity stills, but actual snapshots taken during some intimate moments. Where did you obtain them?
DM: The crew! A handful of interviews I did ended with someone saying, “Hey, I think I have some photos in storage somewhere if you want them.” I wound up collecting more than a thousand unpublished photos from these films. Phantasm Exhumed is set to include more than 200 of them. The great thing is that a majority of these images, such as those from makeup effects creator Mark Shostrom, were digitally scanned in from their original negatives and look fantastic.
Cut Print Film: By now phans of the series know of all the different unmade Phantasm sequels or projects teased over the years; by now they’ve become oddly synonymous with the series, even if they were never made, and I was glad to see them included in the book. Probably most well known is the unproduced script by Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avery, referred to as Phantasm: 1999.
DM: Yes, the book has an entire section dedicated to just that project. I don’t want to say too much here because it’s all there on the page – the multiple drafts, the changes, the cast reactions and the different reasons for it ultimately not being made. Exhumed also has sections dedicated to the aborted remake that New Line Cinema attempted and the Phantasm V project from a few years back—the one that generated the infamous cast reading.
Cut Print Film: The trend seems to be, first, publishing the massive retrospective book, and then turning it into a video documentary, as was the case with Crystal Lake Memories, and Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. Have there been any preliminary discussions about that?
DM: Not at all. I’ve been so engrossed in the book that I can hardly see anything beyond it. I was happy to have been involved in the Phantasm II blu-ray documentary a year back, but I think that will mark the extent of my documentary contributions to Phantasm. Not that there isn’t ample footage/material out there with which to make a new documentary.
Cut Print Film: Why do you think the Phantasm series endures?
DM: I think it endures for a number of reasons. So many elements come together to make these films work. You’ve got endearing performances from a terrific cast, a wonderfully intriguing story, solid direction, dazzling special effects, top-notch makeups, and unforgettable music. This is a franchise that, despite having gone direct-to-video, has yet to compromise itself. Few horror franchises can honestly claim that. There’s also a timeless quality to the series in that these films don’t really date themselves all that much. It endures for these reasons and more.
As for Phantasm Exhumed, I hope it will endure as a warm tribute to these films and also to the life of Angus Scrimm for many years to come. Sadly, he passed away in January of this year and he’s been missed terribly in the time since then. It’s no secret that my book is particularly slanted towards him and his performances as the Tall Man/Jebediah Morningside. Angus wrote the book’s introduction, contributed his unpublished set journals, gave me a new interview, dug up vintage production documents and he proofread several drafts. He invested himself in this project. For me, Phantasm Exhumed is as much a celebration of him as it is the Phantasm films. Again, my hope is that my book will bolster your appreciation for both.
Phantasm: Exhumed is now available in both paperback and hard cover editions.