Thursday 3 December 2015
Phantasm Exhumed - The Unauthorised Companion
by Dustin McNeill
Okay... this is actually a pretty groovy book, as far as ‘story behind the movie’ publications go.
I’ve been aware of the Phantasm movies since seeing the original TV spot trailers over here in the UK back in the 1970s. When I finally got to see the films themselves, I loved them... although it took me a while to catch up to the third and fourth movies. The director, Don Coscarelli, has gone on to do some amazing works such as Bubba HoTep and John Dies At The End (reviewed here) but these films are special because there’s always such a long gap between each one and, with one notable exception for the second of the films, the director always manages to assemble the same core cast for the sequels. I understand the fifth movie, Phantasm: Ravager, is almost ready for release... 17 years after the last one and, really, I’m quite looking forward to seeing where that one takes things.
Now, I have to say, ‘unauthorised’ editions... as in those books which are not sanctioned or approved by the film company or director, like this one... can be a bit of a double edged blade when it comes to the quality of the thing. The big minus on these things tends to be that there’s usually no official or easy access to any of the facts and documentation about what the author is trying to write about. The usual plus side is that the writer can sometimes uncover the not so pleasant side of things which a director or studio definitely would not want to see the light of day.
Dustin McNeill’s book, Phantasm Exhumed - The Unauthorised Companion, is quite unusual in that, in terms of my first point, he seems to have had a lot of access to all the cast and crew and a fair amount of documentation. Everyone except Don Coscarelli himself, it would seem. But everyone of any importance other than Coscarelli seems to have given up hours of interview time and personal memorabilia and information in an effort to assist the writer in his efforts to exhume the story behind these widely loved movies. The book even, in fact, has a foreward written by The Tall Man himself, Mr. Angus Scrimm... so there’s obviously a lot of love for the writer here. One wonders if this one was originally going to be an authorised version but then hit a snag?
Another thing which this ‘unauthorised edition’ doesn’t do, which again flies in the face of convention, is to say anything bad about the director in any way, shape or form. No sordid revelation or any bad behaviour is unearthed here and this does back up a lot of what I’ve heard about Don Coscarelli in the past... he’s a great guy to work for and make a movie with... and that’s more than backed up with accounts by all the people who have worked with him in the pages here. Since he’s obviously a great guy and there’s no hidden agenda, it seems to me, behind the writer’s loving account of the making of these films... my best guess as to why this is not an authorised edition is that maybe Coscarelli is planning on bringing out his own book on the subject some day? That’s all I can think of because... he comes off really well in Phantasm Exhumed.
Being as this is not made with director or studio approval, one thing the book doesn’t seem to have in it is any selection of actual stills from the movies themselves but, frankly, this is more than made up for with the absolute abundance of behind the scenes photos throughout the book which the author has obviously had permission to use... presumably donated by the many people he’s interviewed for this project. Fans of this series of films will find this tome fascinating for this and it’s actually much better, I think, than actually having a bunch of shots which you can probably get from other sources online. There are also nice photos of various premieres, panels (such as a Fangoria panel) and the odd poster artwork as it appeared advertising a Phantasm film in the context of, say, a newspaper, scattered throughout the pages of this book.
One of the things it does do very well and diplomatically is talk about the replacement of Michael Baldwin’s main character Mike with James Le Gros, at the studio’s insistence, for the second movie (made eleven years after the first) before he returned to the franchise as Mike for the subsequent films. Although Le Gros refused, after much toing and froing it would seem, to participate in this book, it seems clear that Baldwin takes the studio’s rejection of him for the second film fairly philosophically and any anger he might have had has long since faded. It would have been interesting to hear Le Gros’ side of the story but it appears everybody involved seems to have forgiven everybody else about that particular casting decision, which I understand Coscarelli wasn’t exactly crazy about himself. The only real ‘not so happy’ thing here being the story of one of the special effects men not being retained for some of the installments and the slight bitterness there. Alas, that individual is no longer around to tell the tale from his side of things.
The book is pretty much any fan of the series’ delight and there isn’t much more you could possibly want from it. Every aspect of each of the movies from pre-production design, building the effects, cast and crew remembrances of specific days (and nights) on the set, musical scoring and even the way the releases were distributed and received by the general public is covered in this book and I really learned a lot from it. I never realised, for instance, just how hugely successful and profitable that first, extremely low budget movie was around the world. I was similarly surprised to find out that Phantasm II actually tanked big time and it really took a lot to get the third and fourth move made on very limited budgets. It’s a real tribute to the people who worked on these movies that they were able to even get these made at all, in all honesty.
The book also covers some interesting projects which never got finished such as a big budget, effects laden Phantasm remake by Roger Avary and takes us right up to some stuff which has been shot under another guise and which may, or may not, be included as part of the up and coming Phantasm: Ravager (aka Phantasm V) movie... for which, judging by the IMDB entry on this one, Coscarelli (now producing and not directing) has managed to once again magically assemble the majority of the original cast for... which is no mean feat when you consider that some of these people are not best known for acting.
Now, if you’re a regular reader here you’ll know that I’m fairly critical of a lot of books written about movies and their history... but Phantasm Exhumed - The unauthorised Edition is a labour of love and I have to say, even if it hadn't been as well put together as it undeniably is, there isn’t a hell of a lot of competition for it out there in terms of collected writings on the Phantasm films. So, basically, if you’re a fan of these Coscarelli movies and you are interested in knowing a bit about what went down on the films as they were being put together, Dustin McNeill’s book is a definite necessity for your shelf full of ball-laden, Phantasm memorabilia. Just remember to duck if you see anything bright and shiny out of the corner of your eye as you read.