An evening with Don Coscarelli

Perry Continente, @PerryContinente

“That was better than it had any right to be,” laughed one theater goer as the credits rolled on “Bubba Ho-Tep,” a film about two geriatric men, one who may be Elvis and one who is almost certainly not JFK, who battle a soul-sucking mummy in a retirement home. While the film certainly delivers on the craziness promised in its plot, one scene sees Elvis fighting a giant scarab beetle with a bedpan, it is also a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on aging, the indignities that come with it and friendship.

What the viewer grasped onto were these surprisingly poignant moments and the way they weave seamlessly with the insanity surrounding them. It is this juxtaposition of empathetic, character driven storytelling with gonzo horror that defines the work of director Don Coscarelli.

The film, along with “Phantasm,” another cult classic by the director, was shown at Alamo Drafthouse, a theatre in San Francisco, as part of the event “An Evening with Don Coscarelli.”

Coscarelli appeared at the theatre promoting and signing his memoirs, “True Indie, Life and Death in Filmmaking” which chronicles his journey as an independent filmmaker.

Following the first film showing, Coscarelli took questions from the audience. When asked about why he chose to write a book, Coscarelli replied, “Some of my contemporaries, though they are much older than I am, passed away recently and I thought ‘what a loss.’” Coscarelli continued lamenting that great directors like George Romero who is responsible for “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” never wrote about their films.

Coscarelli then spoke about artists who inspired him as he helped blaze the indie film trail.

“There weren’t that many indie filmmakers when I started in the 70’s,” said Coscarelli citing older filmmakers like Bob Raphelson and Stanley Kubrick as influences in his filming style.

Coscarelli’s first two projects, a drama and a comedy, failed to make a return on investment prompting him to make the horror film “Phantasm” in the hopes it would be more profitable. “There was a piece of industry wisdom at the time that horror films always turned a profit,” said Coscarelli.

However, box office success was clearly not Coscarelli’s only goal with “Phantasm.” Rather than be content with a simple monster movie or haunted house picture, as was popular in the late 70s when the film was made, Coscarelli created a cinematic fever dream featuring flying chrome orbs that drill into people’s brains, interdimensional undertakers and twitching fingers that turn into insects. These monstrosities are battled by two orphaned brothers and their friend who drives an ice cream truck. Impressively, Coscarelli made this strange and ambitious film on a shoestring budget of $300,000 when he was in his early twenties.

“I think ‘Phantasm’ has endured because of [the brotherhood present in the film,]” said Coscarelli pointing out bonds between the non-traditional family the protagonists of the film make up.

Indeed much like “Bubba Ho-Tep” is as much about aging as it is about mummies, “Phantasm” has a major B-plot about picking up the pieces from the loss of a family member.

Theatergoers certainly were left with things to talk about following the showing. Many could be heard having spirited discussions, laughing and analyzing what they just saw. This is a testament to the unique nature, sense of fun and emotional heart of the work of Don Coscarelli.