‘Phantasm’ Director Don Coscarelli on How J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Restored His Horror Classic
Among the more surprising developments in recent months was the seemingly-out-of-nowhere announcement that J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot teamed up with genre director Don Coscarelli to restore Phantasm. The cult classic received a full 4k makeover, enhancing both sight and sound to restore the wonderfully weird and creepy horror-fantasy to something even better than its former glory. The remastered Phantasm debuted at SXSW, allowing fans both old and new to rediscover and experience Coscarelli’s cinematic fever dream.
By now you’re probably aware that Abrams is a fan of Phantasm — the name of Gwendoline Christie’s shiny and chrome Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens was inspired by Coscarelli’s film, in case it wasn’t immediately obvious. The story of how Abrams came to Coscarelli is an interesting one, and began several years ago with a friendly introduction:
[Abrams] had just reached out to me because he was a fan of the original movie and wanted to talk to me about it. I subsequently introduced him to the actor who starred in Phantasm, Angus Scrimm. They became friendly and he put Angus in the Alias TV series. He had a recurring role, which was really wonderful because Angus was an older gentleman and pretty much worked exclusively in independent and horror films. He found himself on the set of a big studio TV show and really liked it. He and J.J. stayed friends.
Even then, it wasn’t until about a year ago that Abrams had the idea to restore Phantasm. Coscarelli says it started with an email from Abrams
About a year ago I received an email from J.J. and he wanted to run Phantasm over at his company, Bad Robot, for the employees and folks who hadn’t seen it. All I had available was my 35mm print, but it was really scratched up, and I had my standard definition DVD, which wasn’t the greatest. He would refuse to believe there was no high-def version of it available, and just decided he wanted to fix it immediately.
From there, Abrams introduced Coscarelli to his head of post-production, Ben Rosenblatt:
He came up with this plan where he would put some pressure on some labs to get us a very high-def laser scan of the original camera negative. So I got the negative out of the vaults, took it over and got it scanned, and they put it in this nice, high-end system — a finishing work station system called Mystica — and uploaded it to that.
Seems simple enough, but the process took quite some time. With Bad Robot’s commitments to other upcoming films, the Phantasm restoration became a side project:
Every month or so I’d get a phone call from Ben, and he’d say okay, we’ve got a window, the techs are done with their Star Trek work, they don’t have anything to work on, so come on over, we’ll work on color correction on Phantasm. So this went on for like a year. Usually at nights I’d be over there and had free access to use the system and their guys, and they’re really talented and nice people.
As Coscarelli explains, there was quite a bit of work to do. When Phantasm originally hit theaters back in 1979, studios were churning out tons of films, but quality control was sadly not a priority, which is why it’s difficult to find a decent quality film print from this era — and why the film restoration and preservation efforts of directors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese are so vital. Coscarelli’s original negative had a lot of scratching and dust, but with Bad Robot’s equipment he was able to clean it up.
Coscarelli says restoring the visual clarity was his primary undertaking, but having access to such a great system came with an additional perk: the ability to clean up and enhance some of his practical effects. Fans of Phantasm will be relieved to know the director didn’t get overzealous the way George Lucas did with the original Star Wars trilogy, something Coscarelli hints at while explaining his approach to cleaning up the effects:
There weren’t really visual effects back then. All the effects were done old fashioned style, so a lot of duct tape and a lot of fishing line. We were able to go through and erase some of the fishing line, and a really cool part of it is that I wanted to be careful not to get too crazy the way some major filmmakers have in terms of updating and restoring their older movies. I did update one pretty critical visual effect. We had one screening of the movie so far, at Butt-Numb-a-Thon, and nobody noticed it, which is GREAT. It really makes it look a lot better.
The end result is a pristine restoration of Phantasm that introduces Coscarelli’s classic to a new audience and allows established fans to rediscover the film with a gorgeous 4k presentation that’s as close to seeing it in 1979 as you’ll get — perhaps even better. Coscarelli’s production design and eerily bizarre sequences are remarkably vivid, with the iconic scenes set at the Morningside cemetery and mausoleum serving as the real visual centerpiece of this revived cult favorite.
Bad Robot is giving the Phantasm restoration a wide theatrical release this year, giving the film its biggest audience yet. The date has yet to be officially announced, but we’ll have more from our extended talk with Coscarelli closer to the release.