Screening Phantasm With The Tall Man
From a respectful write-up on Texas Frightmare Weekend by Dread Central:
Can we stop calling Texas Frightmare Weekend a “regional con” now? The first reader I met this year was Aaron from Australia, who had flown all the way here to experience TFW as his FIRST con.
I met that guy! Twice. Sat right next to him at the special 35mm screening of Phantasm at the Alamo Draft House in Richardson. Cool guy. He was in fact, the first person that I met as well on my little Texas Frightmare Weekend adventure.
The day before TFW kicked off they did some screenings of old movies with stars in attendance. I heard about three. There was one they did with Sid Haig at the Old Texas Theater – Whatever happened to Spider Baby, I believe it was. Then Neve Campbell was there at the Alamo Drafthouse for Scream. That apparently happened just before I got there.
Then there was the one I was there to see – Phantasm, in glorious 35mm. It was to be the final ever screening in 35mm, as the film stock was deteriorating too badly. Apparently the reel we were watching was director Don Coscarelli’s own personal copy. The entire cast (minus Reggie Banister, who had a flight delay or some such issue) plus Mr. Coscarelli was in attendance giving live commentary throughout the movie.
To be honest, this was the highlight of TFW for me and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for similar events next year.
To those of you who do not live within near proximity of an Alamo Drafthouse, I’m sorry. There are plenty of cinema/eateries around, at least in Dallas, but imagine one run by cinephiles who also had a fondness for top-shelf liquor, and you’ve got Alamo Drafthouse.
They do cutesy things with the menu like offer themed drinks and meals to go along with the movie you’re watching, because presumably they give a damn about what they are doing and the experience they provide to the patron. I had a glass of “Mother’s Milk”, for instance, while I watched Fury Road. A creamy concoction of Maker’s Mark and other stuff. Actual mother’s milk? I don’t recall.
Also, the halls are covered in retro movie posters whose awesomeness I can barely describe.
I’m not ashamed to say I wanted to steal that one. But, you know, crime and the police and all. At a certain point in my childhood I was that guy in the movie poster. Had my own ninja outfit, my own homemade (and some actual) ninja weapons, the whole ninja schmear. I thought I was the only guy that remembered that movie. Still has what I consider to be the greatest choreographed fight scene of all time.
To kick off the screening, some guy from the Drafthouse came out to introduce Coscarelli and the rest of the cast. He was young guy. Cursed a lot, I thought maybe to identify with us fans, who were presumably a bunch of rough, cursing plebes. Immediately before that we were treated to an extended cut of the new Phantasm Ravager movie currently in production, featuring all the members of the original cast. I have to say, what we saw looked great.
The movie is still in the editing stages and it sounds like distribution is a little sketchy at the moment, but they hope to have something out this year. And it sounds like it’ll definitely be showing at the Alamo Drafthouse, so SCORE. You know I’ll be there, sipping a Phan-tini or something and eating a Ravageburger with Tall Fries.
After some discussion about the new film with Coscarelli and the guy in charge of Ravager, they introduced the cast.
Don Coscarelli struck me as a very personable, approachable, interesting guy who enjoys and is still somewhat mystified by the success and endurance of this movie he made in his early twenties at his Mom’s house. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that his followup to Phantasm was Beastmaster, starring Marc Singer, also a favorite of mine as a young kid. I did not know that!
David Hartman, the man pictured above just to the left of Coscarelli, is the director of Ravager. He has worked mostly as an animator and artist, and the vast majority of his experience as a director has been with children’s cartoons. He’s a big fan of the Phantasm series, though, and seemed honored to be asked to do direct the new movie. I forget exactly what his connection was to Coscarelli. I suppose you could Google that if you cared.
Kat Lester had a fun and flirtatious personality. Obviously very proud of her role in the movie. She makes her living now as a vampy singer, I believe. She seemed to have a crush on Bill Thornbury, but it felt like part of the act.
Michael Baldwin, who played the kid “Mike” in Phantasm, was a wisecracking smartass, but in a charming way, I suppose. He skipped out halfway through the screening to flirt with some girls in the lobby. #Hollywood.
More on Bill Thornbury later.
Reggie Bannister couldn’t make it, as mentioned earlier, but according to Coscarelli and the rest of the cast the character you see in the movie is EXACTLY WHAT HE’S LIKE IN REAL LIFE. I would have like to have seen him drive up the Drafthouse in that ice cream truck, then. Probably has some pot-filled Klondike bars in there.
Horror legend Angus Scrimm, the venerable “Tall Man” of the movie, shuffled to the front of the theater to the sound of thunderous applause and a standing ovation. As a kid, what impressed me about the character of the Tall Man was his weirdness; his awkward gait (a natural side-effect of the lifts he used to augment his height), his anachronistic haircut, his gruff and terse demeanor. In real life Angus Scrimm is nothing like that at all. He’s more like a genteel old grandpa, and is treated as such by his many adoring fans and no less so by his fellow cast members and associates. Angus is old, and he shows his age. He’s a little hard of hearing, a little slow to follow lines of conversation. But he could be witty, and gracious, and had just as good a recall of those events of the filming nearly forty(!) years ago as any of the others. Don and Kat seemed especially deferential to him.
After introducing everyone they had a short Q&A session. I really wasn’t prepared, but I did chime in to ask whatever happened to that sweet muscle car from the movie.
However, my exclamation seemed to grab the attention of Bill Thornbury, who played Mike’s big brother in the movie. After the Q&A he walked over to shake hands with me and Aaron and another fellow with whom we were in conversation. By some amazing luck I managed to reserve seats directly behind where the cast was seated, and immediately behind Bill.
Turns out he’s a really cool, laid back kind of guy. He’s a real musician, too. He and Reggie did a little set at the Phantasm Ball the opening night of TFW. Regretfully I missed it, because I really, really wanted to hear the full-cut live performance of Sitting Here at Midnight. Damn.
Here’s the clip from the movie. I think you will agree it is HOT AS LOVE. When I met Aaron and our other acquaintance the next day at the ball, they let me know I missed the performance. Apparently they did like four songs together. Come to think of it, I never even saw Reggie Bannister the entire time, not even at the table. My loss!
One of us asked Bill how he ended up getting cast in the movie, and his story was fairly typical, I guess. Agent hooked him up with an audition. He was playing in a band at the time. We chatted for a while. He thanked us for being fans and for coming out to the screening.
Then kind of an odd thing happened.
My new buddy Aaron had ordered one of those themed Alamo Draft-burgers I mentioned previously, but had left the pickle. Thornbury starts eyeing it and is like “You gonna eat that?” Aaron tries to pass it off real smooth like “No, man, go ahead. It’s all yours.”, but I could tell by that slight bit of hesitation before he spoke that he’s wondering like WTF? By that time Bill was already halfway through his pickle spear just kind of staring at us. Then he says
“I never met a pickle I didn’t like.”
That’s my Bill Thornbury story, ladies and gentlemen. What a cool guy. I will never watch Phantasm again without remembering that episode. He went to his seat after that, which as I said was directly in front of us, and we all kind of stared at each other like “Did that just happen?”
The screening began, and I have to say the live commentary from Coscarelli and the cast was fantastically entertaining. They cracked jokes, they gave plenty of curious background details about the process of filming the movie, threw out some trivia, and gave their personal thoughts. It was fun, and intimate. I was surprised at how well they all seemed to get along together. They were totally comfortable with each other and exhibited an easy family dynamic that added a lot to the experience. It felt more like we were hanging out with them than listening to a lecture.
Coscarelli tended to steer the commentary. He’d usually give some background information about the scene we were watching, then try to get the others to chime in with their perspectives.
I found the filming locations particularly interesting. Mike and Jody’s house in Phantasm was really Coscarelli’s mother’s house. The cemetery scenes were shot at a public park. The fortuneteller’s house was a nearby abandoned home that was only recently was torn down. And the outside of the funeral home was an old historic building that is open to the public today.
They all had plenty of amusing stories to tell. In the scene above, for instance, Mike had to crawl through an unexpected pile of dog poop without breaking character in order to nail the scene. They all remarked on what a consummate actor he was, stoically delivering his lines whilst smeared with crap.
Kat Lester, who seemed to enjoy playing the part of the weird seductress, was unusually quick to point out that she did NOT do any of the nude scenes in the movie. Instead, stand-ins were used for the couple of scenes where the “action” got heated. She tried to embarrass Bill Thornbury during the makeout scenes, but my man was probably thinking about those pickles he just ate. Damn good pickles at the Drafthouse.
Coscarelli mentioned being influenced by a few people that I also love, namely Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe. One influence he didn’t mention, though, was Frank Herbert. There were a couple of references in the movie to Herbert’s Dune novel. In the scene where Mike goes to visit the fortune teller he is asked to place his hand inside a mysterious box, after which he experiences great pain and cannot remove it from the box until he calms down and realizes that the pain is just an illusion or something. It’s a very close echo of the Gom Jabbar scene from the novel, where a young Paul Atreides has his manhood tested by use of a similar device.
Then there’s the “Dunes” cantina. Coincidence, or not-so-subtle nod? For all I know he forgot all about it. Dune would have been fairly popular at the time.
Every now and again Don would ask Angus to recollect his experiences in a certain scene or with the filming generally. He seemed to have a little trouble following the conversation, but when he spoke he was articulate and often funny. He went on at length about what a great actor Mike Baldwin was during the MacGyver scene in which he breaks out of his room by taping a shotgun shell to a hammer and using that to blast a hole through the door. Though there was no dialog, you could follow his thought processes as he put his unlikely plan together. The Tall Man regarded that as consummate thespianship.
The only time Angus spoke up of his own volition was right after the scene with the fortune teller. He interrupted Kat, I believe, to mention that the girl in the scene, Terrie Kalbus, had disappeared in real life and was never heard from again. Nobody else seemed to want to touch that, and I felt there was just a slight moment of awkwardness before Don moved the conversation in another direction.
And so, unintentionally, Angus provided us with what was the only really spooky moment of the night.
Phantasm is an odd movie. There is a dreamlike quality to it, and in the end you find out it was all a dream. Or was it? Coscarelli mentioned that during the early test screenings one audience was so disappointed at the “dream” reveal that a number of them started to walk out at that point, only to be told by Angus, in his most intimidating Tall Man voice, to sit right back down and stay till the credits rolled. That must have been surreal. But if you buy the dream theory, then what happens to Mike at the end? But if it’s not a dream, then how do you make sense of everything that happens after they bury the Tall Man down the well? The real answer is that, similar to the conclusion of the fantastic series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan, there was no real “master plan” for the ending; rather they patched together different segments to satisfy the audience after the original idea proved unpopular. Nobody knew how it was going to end. They filmed multiple endings and spliced at least two of them together. It’s confused, and doesn’t set up well for a sequel. It’s doubtful Coscarelli ever planned on one. But the ending works. It’s true to the oddness of the rest of the movie. Is it all a dream? A dream within a dream? The ends are loosely tied, leaving lots of room for interpretation.
(It must be noted that the ending was controversial for the time. The bad guy won, didn’t he? The Tall Man lived, and he comes back for the good guy in the end. A kid, mind you. That just wasn’t done back in those days.)
My take on Phantasm? As I watched the movie that night up on the big screen, and for probably the fifth or sixth time, listening to the director and the stars give their takes on it, a new vision of the movie occurred to me. I once saw someone in a magazine describe Phantasm as a spooky after-school special (remember those?). I agree, though not in the sense he meant that. The movie is a dream, but not a literal one. It is a dreamlike exploration of a young man’s inner turmoil in dealing with the death of his family. Maybe it was a tragic accident, or maybe a series of accidents like the movie lays out, taking first his parents and then his older brother, but he’s left alone, and very suddenly. The Tall Man, the funeral home director, the undertaker, represents death, but also God, who has the power of life and death, and who takes people away without need for justification or explanation, for purposes of his own. Those left behind can only guess at what those are. Mike sets out on a path to confront the Tall Man, but the key to his victory is given away by the fortune teller. The pain that is holding Mike back, that is keeping him frozen, is just an illusion. Only when he learns to face his fears calmly and accept his situation can he hope to escape the black box of pain in which he is held. He is only partially successful, for though he is able to temporarily repress his feelings of grief, by “burying” the Tall Man down the well, they come back. In the dual symbolism mentioned above the return of the Tall Man at the end can also be seen as a manifestation of the inevitability of death; ultimately no one escapes.
I walked away from the screening with a great sense of satisfaction. It was a night I enjoyed very much. While I was there I picked up a copy of Mondo’s new and beautifully packaged soundtrack, in LP format. Take a look.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this one, stayed tuned for my upcoming photo galleries from Texas Frightmare Weekend and Dark Hour Haunted House!