In the ranks of genre film directors, certain legendary names stand out: John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi. One name you might not think of as belonging in that group — if you think of it at all — is Don Coscarelli. That would be a mistake, though, because Coscarelli's body of work is comparable to the films of any of those heavy hitters, just as solid and just as distinctive.
My relationship with Coscarelli’s work goes way back. I was only six or seven the first time I saw his sci-fi/horror epic Phantasm (which screens tonight, October 10, at the Sloan's Lake Alamo Drafthouse), and it left a hell of an impression. I remember watching it in growing awe and terror, taking in the murderous silver spheres, the intimidating Tall Man and the creepy little dwarves until it overwhelmed me and I had to retreat. I remember going to hide in our laundry room, behind the kitchen, because I couldn’t hear the TV from there. Safe from the barrage of terrifying images on the screen, I found those images stamped indelibly on my mind’s eye, where they would remain for years, until I finally had the guts to revisit the film as an adult. Turns out, it’s a masterful work of surreal horror with layers of meaning and, of course, all that awesome shit that scared me stupid as a kid.
A few years later, The Beastmaster came along. That one I was able to enjoy without the occasional bout of night terrors, despite some intense and creepy moments of its own. Somehow, the sword-and-sorcery adventures of a man who could talk to animals was a little easier to take than an inter-dimensional undertaker with an army of brain-drilling silver spheres. Must have been the ferrets. The Beastmaster holds up today about as well as its much more famous contemporary, Conan the Barbarian, which is to say that it’s pretty cheesy and there sure are a lot of men in furry loincloths. But if you can get past that, there’s fun to be had.
As the years passed, Coscarelli made two more good Phantasm films (and one muddled one to close out the series), stretching the franchise in new directions, introducing elements of action in both and turning the third into a clever horror comedy in a surprising and somewhat disappointing twist. He did all this with minimal budgets, some obnoxious studio interference, a few questionable actors and almost no fanfare outside of the dedicated horror press and fans of the series. Together, the three good films make a nice, under-the-radar franchise that shows how far a few original ideas and a lot of love from its creator can go.
Since the turn of the millennium, Coscarelli has shown no signs of letting up. In 2002 he delivered Bubba Ho-Tep, a brilliant horror comedy about an Elvis and JFK stuck in the same old folks' home and forced to fight off a mummy. That loopy premise is played remarkably straight, and the results are golden; it may be his finest film, in all honesty. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis star as Elvis and JFK, respectively (yes, JFK is not only alive, but black; just see the film) and use their considerable talents to great effect to tell a story of friendship and meaning at the end of life. Plus, there’s a killer mummy.
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He followed that with John Dies at the End, a great, if at times rough-edged, adaptation of David Wong’s mind-bending novel about alien drugs, multiple dimensions and some really, really weird monsters, including an animate amalgam of murderous meat that simply has to be seen to be believed. Like Bubba Ho-Tep and the third installment of Phantasm, John blends action, horror and humor in precisely controlled doses that make for an excellent film. With a little more budget and a longer run time (it’s a big, dense book), this could have been a blockbuster. As it stands, it’s an incredible film considering its budget (under a million, reportedly) and tight run time.
Coscarelli’s other films — the fourth Phantasm, a couple of dated teen comedies that he made prior to Phantasm and an out-of-print wilderness survival obscurity called Survival Quest — may not be up to the same standard as his best work, but that’s hardly a strike against him. While he’s not as prolific as some, his hit rate is incredible: Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep are unquestionably classics, and the remainder, apart from the few I just mentioned, are all somewhere between very good and great. And, of course, he’s still cranking out excellent genre films, including some of his best work, more than three decades after he got his start.
His movies all have a signature feel to them — that ineffable stamp that all the best directors put on their work. No one else makes movies like Coscarelli, and that alone is worthy of recognition. Take a minute to rewatch the films of his you’ve seen, and catch the ones you’ve missed, and I’ve no doubt you’ll realize that his work is right up there with that of Carpenter and Cronenberg as some of the best genre films ever made.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 10, Don Coscarelli will be at the Sloan's Lake Alamo Drafthouse, 4255 West Colfax Avenue, for a screening of his cult classic, Phantasm, followed by a full Q&A panel. A copy of his new memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, is included in the admission price; get tickets here.