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SXSW: Director Don Coscarelli Discusses J.J. Abrams’ PHANTASM Restoration

Even if you haven’t seen Phantasm, you likely know its iconography – the terrifyingly tall mortician from another world played by the late Angus Scrimm, the flying spheres with the blades that stick into peoples’ heads, the hooded dwarf minions. But then again, even if you have seen Phantasm, you haven’t really SEEN it – it has never been cleaned up to high-definition levels, and most fans haven’t even seen it on a big screen. But starting at SXSW this Monday, that will all change, as a 4K restoration will screen publicly for the first time. In advance of the screening, writer-director Don Coscarelli gave us the lowdown on how it came to be.

“Eleven or twelve years ago, when I was editing Bubba Ho-Tep,” recalls Coscarelli, “I just got a phone call out of the blue from J.J. [Abrams], who was billed to me as a TV producer. He goes, ‘I’m a TV producer. I made this show, Felicity, and I’m working on this new show, and I’m a big Phantasm fan.’ [Star Wars‘ Captain Phasma is so named because her shiny armor reminded Abrams of Phantasm‘s chromed death spheres] So I talked with him about it, and he was working in the writer’s room over there at Alias, and there was–I guess there were a couple of Phantasm fans in the writer’s room, and so I guess they wanted to meet Angus Scrimm, so I hooked them up so they could meet with Angus, and then J.J. gave Angus a role in Alias. He had a recurring role, which Angus really enjoyed.”

Over the years, they maintained the friendship, even as Coscarelli continued to make beloved low-budget cult movies like Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End, while Abrams shot up into the blockbuster stratosphere. They continued to talk off and on, “…And then about a year and a half ago I got a phone call from him, and he had this idea that he wanted to screen Phantasm over at Bad Robot and have me come over and do a Q&A with his employees so they could see Phantasm, because a lot of them had not seen it. But the problem was that I had this–all I had to offer was this scratched up old 35mm print, and I had a standard def DVD, and he was shocked that the movie was not in high def. He said ‘We have to fix that. I’m going to have my post-production call you.'”

PHANTASM - Sphere Attack

Calls were made, and work commenced. “Essentially it was me coming over to Bad Robot, and usually in the later evenings,” Coscarelli says, “and after the technicians over there were done working on Star Trek and Star Wars, then they were going to work on Phantasm. It seems ridiculous, but it’s pretty cool. So I just got this high quality–they got the original camera negative and did a frame scan of the–a laser scan of the entire negative, and then started working it over in their systems. It came out just great.”

He describes seeing the new print as making the viewer feel like he or she has been wearing sunglasses during previous viewings, and they just came off. I tell him I felt the same way when I first saw Phantasm on Netflix, having previously only watched a dark pink, degraded VHS. “Even that was in standard def still,” he says of the Netflix streaming version, before revealing a tidbit about the terrible tape I would have watched prior. “Those VHS’s that we all sort of know and love, on the VHS, there is a scene that the tape operator, when they were making the VHS, deleted, because there was a scene in the very last minute of the re-roll, but they would shave it out, and the tape operator thought that the movie, that reel was over, so he clipped it, but he left out like 30 seconds of Phantasm that was just excluded from that VHS tape, and it was playing for like a decade.”

Calling the new restoration “a revelation,” he urges fans that have never seen it in a theater to do so now, as they’ll notice nuances in the performances that could never be seen before. “The original Phantasm had more negative damage, because it was made back in the day–when it was made, I don’t know what those lab technicians were smoking over there at the laboratories, but there are a lot of errors. Hairs and dust and scratching. It’s not as prevalent in the more recent movies. So I am hoping that we are going to get all of the movies out in HD this year.”

The Phantasm restoration will be getting a national theatrical rollout later in the year, along with the fifth and final film in the series, Phantasm: Ravager. Dates are not yet set, but stay tuned to Nerdist–once the movie’s release schedule is confirmed we’ll have more with Coscarelli, including details on the Bubba and John Dies movies, final thoughts on Angus Scrimm, and much more!

In the meantime, if you are in Austin for South by Southwest, don’t miss Phantasm at 11:45 p.m. on Monday, March 14th at the Stateside Theatre. Might we see you there? Give us a heads-up below if so.

Restored Phantasm stills courtesy of Camelia Adibi PR

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