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Quint takes a look at the Don Coscarelli triple threat from Anchor Bay!! PHANTASM, PHANTASM III and SURVIVAL QUEST on DVD!!!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. In my over ten years at Ain’t It Cool News I’ve met many people I admire and respect. Sometimes they’ve known the site and my work on it, sometimes not. There are very few that I’ve continued communication with and a very few of those I’d personally consider real friends. Don Coscarelli is one of those people. I met Don way back, maybe 7 years ago now. Along with Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm, Don came to the Alamo Drafthouse to screen all 4 PHANTASM movies. Needless to say, I geeked out a bit. I grew up on the first two PHANTASM films and BEASTMASTER, so I was psyched to be there and even more happy when Don ended up being one of the hands down nicest people I’ve ever met. We kept up the communication afterwards. Every time I was in LA, we’d meet up and he’d talk about his struggles within Hollywood and fill me in on his next project… some weird movie based on a Joe R. Lansdale short story. When he got his meager financing in place, he invited me to spend some time on the set of this flick. I flew myself out (thanks to ticket I got for donating a bunch of canned goods, part of a promotion for the short-lived Vanguard Airlines), crashed on friends’ couches and took him up on his offer. One of my very first in-depth set reports was on BUBBA HO-TEP. I spent two weeks of the 4 week shoot watching the film come together, watching the stress of shooting an independent movie weigh on Don. But I also got to see his innovation as a filmmaker as he overcame the problems if the production. Keep in mind he made BUBBA HO-TEP for well under a million bucks. To illustrate how low of a budget this was, in my time there I was called into duty to be an extra as well as a documentarian. When Don’s son, Andy, wasn’t around to video the behind the scenes, the camera would come to me. In particular I got a good position recording Bruce Campbell during the first scene he has with the nurse (Ella Joyce), which I think made it onto the DVD. Don is a filmmaker that has always had more trouble than he deserved. PHANTASM 2 is my favorite entry in the series. I can’t help but look at that film and think that if he had a slightly better break, if the movie gods had been a bit kinder to him, then he could be making some really big movies, having made the same jump that Sam Raimi made. PHANTASM was a huge hit, an independent movie that kicked ass on the drive-in circuit. His next flick was BEASTMASTER, a movie that scared the shit out of me as a kid. I’ve rewatched it in the last few years and I was surprised how well it held up. It’s a surprisingly horrific tale, inventively shot and much better than it had any right being. That was a lukewarm success, but PHANTASM 2 flopped and then SURVIVAL QUEST made almost no money, which sucks because they’re both really strong movies. Don ended up having to go direct to video for the next two Phantasm movies. It’s almost like a jail. Once you go direct to video, it’s hard to get out. I know Don was very insistent on BUBBA HO-TEP going theatrical. So strong were his convictions that he turned down many lucrative DVD offers and ended up self-distributing BUBBA, a move that cemented the flick as a new cult classic. Now there are toys and loyal fans all over the world. Bottom line, he’s had the talent for a long time, but the cards just haven’t gone his way. Thankfully, even when he was forced to use the lowest budgets he didn’t turn in by-the-numbers work, which is paying off now with the DVD market. Anchor Bay is putting out three of his films this Tuesday. They have the double-dip for PHANTASM, the first North American DVD release of PHANTASM III and his little seen adventure/suspense flick SURVIVAL QUEST.

You can tell there wasn’t much money behind this movie. I believe it was an MGM film, released in 1989, with a pretty impressive cast of character actors and future stars. Basically, there’s a group of weak city people who sign up for a survival camp. It’s kind of an adult boy scout camp. Lance Henriksen plays the teacher, a kind-hearted master of the wilderness. On the opposite side of the coin you have a hardass army dude, played by ALIENS’ Mark Rolston (he played Drake), who is teaching a tougher group of militia-like wannabees how to kill things. He’s more of a survival of the fittest type guy and Henriksen is more focused on teamwork. They do not work together, but they are both using the same mountainy wilderness to do their teachings. There are many familiar faces here, including an incredibly young Catherine Keener (as a divorcee who is trying to prove to herself that she can be strong), Durmot Mulroney (a convict participating as part of some prison program), Reggie Bannister (of course), Paul Provenza and Steve Antin (Troy from THE GOONIES, playing an equally douchey character here). Of course, events conspire to pit the two groups against each other. It becomes somewhat like a retelling of LORD OF THE FLIES. The farther away from civilization they get, the more the individuals are stripped to their core. Most are decent, some are horrible. The budget shows. It’s not a flawless film, but the story is well told, the characters interesting. It’s certainly not a film that deserved to be almost completely forgotten. It’s nice to see this title on DVD… There’s not much on it but some Coscarelli trailers and an 8 or so minute behind the scenes video of the cast screwing around. If you’re a fan of Coscarelli’s or any of the actors involved, it’s well worth a rental or buy.

As I said before, I grew up with the first couple PHANTASM movies (and I saw Phantasms 3 and 4 as soon as they appeared on the Blockbuster shelves). It’s amazing to me… each time I watch this film, it blows me away how inventive it is. It’s certainly rough, it certainly has the taint of the ‘70s all over it, but it’s such a strong film. Don was in his early 20s when he came up with shot PHANTASM. There’s a dreamlike quality to the first film that immediately puts you off. Coscarelli understood, even at that young age, how important atmosphere and iconography was. The silver sphere will forever hold a place of honor in the minds and hearts of horror hounds. Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man, an intimidating figure and immediately striking villain. Somehow, the use of non-actors (or at the very least inexperienced actors) only adds to the film’s believability. It’s unlike any horror film before or since. You can see its influence on films like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, which also used that dream-state well, but both films are certainly their own. Anchor Bay’s decision to re-release the DVD isn’t a bad one. They have a new line called THE ANCHOR BAY COLLECTION, which started with Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR release a few weeks back. Each film in this Collection will have a new HD transfer and new bonus materials. On this PHANTASM disc there’s not much new in the way of special features… I think there’s only a 30 minute documentary that’s new. And even that, I think, was on that badass UK release that had all four films encased in a giant silver sphere. But it’d be the first time in release in North America, with this gorgeous new transfer. If you don’t have it, you can pick it up for under $15 and that’s more than enough reason to add this film to your library. It’s a classic.

Thanks to a rights issue (with Univeral, I believe), Anchor Bay probably will never put out a North American DVD of PHANTASM II, my favorite of the series. I do love me my PHANTASM III, though, so I’m happy they finally got the rights to do it up for North America. One of the beautiful things about the PHANTASM series is how they all connect to each other. I love that PHANTASM II starts immediately after PHANTASM I and how III starts immediately after II. And each film feels slightly different. PHANTASM III has a goofier tone than the first two, while II was the slicker, bigger budgeted entry and IV… well, IV is IV… Not a huge fan of it. I think the heart of this series is Reggie Bannister and that’s probably why I love III as much as I do. There’s a real focus on Reggie and they team him up with the coolest post-apocalyptic youngin' since The Feral Kid. I love that it’s a horror film, hard R and gory as shit, but the center of the movie is this relationship between a kid no more than 12 years old and Reggie, a balding middle aged ex-ice cream man. In someone else’s hands THAT scenario would be the horror movie. Kevin Conners plays the kid. I don’t know what the hell happened to this kid, but he’s great in the movie. An independent and strong child who protected himself after the Tall Man took his family and wiped out his whole town. He uses his sheriff father’s guns like a trained gunslinger and sets traps in his house for any raiders that might come knocking. He’s a badass. A 12 year old badass… and a smart one, too. I wish I could think up a Frisbee lined with razor blades… and actually have it work the way it does in the movie. Also in the mix is Rocky, a kick-ass black chick that knows how to use a pair of nunchucks and rocks an awesome early ‘90s flat top afro. Horny ol’ Reggie tries his damndest to get with her and some of the best dialog of the series comes out of it. You can definitely see the step down the budget took between II and III, but Coscarelli made due and produced a really kick-ass flick. As for extra features you’re looking at a commentary with A. Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm, a fun but short behind the scenes featurette, an incredibly quick deleted scene and a bunch of trailers. That’s another thing I love about these Anchor Bay discs… They all start out with vintage trailers. Not “coming soon to video” recuts, but the actual theatrical trailers, just like you’d find on VHSs in the ‘80s. In the case of these discs, you get Coscarelli trailers for the PHANTASMS, SURVIVAL QUEST, KENNY & CO. (a great kids film that Coscarelli directed before PHANTASM) and his Masters of Horror episode. It’s little touches like that that truly make Anchor Bay the Criterion of genre titles, albeit slightly more affordable… heh… Those three DVDs are hitting Tuesday. Hope you folks had a Happy Easter. -Quint

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