For this entry of Phantom Limbs, we’ll be taking a peek at New Line Cinema’s mooted but ultimately unproduced big screen Phantasm trilogy that was first announced in 2005. Rumored to have been a rebooting of Don Coscarelli’s (The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep) beloved sci-fi/horror franchise, this new set of films was said to have seen the return of both Coscarelli (in a producing role) and Angus Scrimm, who played the franchise’s iconic villain The Tall Man. In addition, the films were to return the tale back to its roots as the story of young Mike Pearson (played by A. Michael Baldwin in the original series), a young man who runs afoul of The Tall Man and his flying, bladed chrome spheres after discovering the macabre events transpiring at Morningside Cemetery, home to Scrimm’s wicked mortuary caretaker.
Joining us for this installment are Don Coscarelli, as well as screenwriter Stephen Susco, who was briefly attached to the short-lived project. The two were kind enough to discuss the project’s origins, where its story might have gone, and why it never came to pass.
In March of 2005, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story claiming that filmmaker Don Coscarelli was in final negotiations with New Line Cinema to produce a relaunch of his iconic Phantasm franchise. “The movie is being developed as a relaunch and as a possible trilogy about Mike’s coming of age,” the article claimed, setting genre websites ablaze with speculation as to what this could mean for the long-running horror series. Ain’t It Cool News announced that Bruce Campbell would join the second and third films of this planned trilogy, with New Line apparently eyeing the character of Mike to be “the Luke Skywalker of horror”. Ain’t It Cool noted that Bloody Disgusting followed up these initial reports with additional bits of information, including New Line’s intention to upgrade the spheres and keep Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man, while aiming to make this a “definitive” Phantasm trilogy that would amount to being “the Star Wars of horror”. These initial reports also revealed that this project would also involve screenwriter Stephen Susco, who had just penned the recent horror hit The Grudge.
Unfortunately, even for the project’s pedigree and its studio’s muscle, the project ultimately never came to pass. The franchise would eventually continue on in the form of the David Hartman-directed Phantasm: Ravager, the 2016 installment which acted as both a swan song for Scrimm and (to date) an ending for the classic horror series. But what about that trilogy…?
In chatting with Mr. Coscarelli for an upcoming Phantom Limbs installment on Phantasm 1999, this writer couldn’t help but ask about the New Line trilogy. Does he remember much about this particular project? “You know, I really don’t,” Coscarelli laughs. “I had a meeting [with Stephen Susco]. He’s a nice guy. I do remember that the executive at the time, a guy named Jeff Katz, was really trying to generate a lot of enthusiasm [for the project]. Part of that was prematurely announcing that it was going to be done, and then the deal never happened. So it just kinda went nowhere.”
“Well, I can tell you that it almost happened,” Mr. Susco begins, discussing the Phantasm trilogy project he was associated with for a time. “Right after The Grudge came out, New Line brought it up with me. It sounded like what had happened was, they were talking to Don about it, and Don was like, ‘Well, you know, bring me a writer to talk to.’ Because The Grudge had just come out, I just happened to be the guy to talk to for that little window, you know?
“It was a situation where they were like, ‘Do you like Phantasm?’ Yes. ‘Would you be interested in talking with Don?’ ‘Yeah. You want me to go out with Don Coscarelli, have a meal? Are you kidding me?!’ I happened to be a huge fan … that movie was so instrumental for me, because horror was harder to access when I was a kid. Cable didn’t turn on until I was like nine, where I’m from. So it was the occasional switching on the TV on a Saturday afternoon, and seeing crazy fucking shit going on. A graveyard and a mortuary and being like, ‘What the fuck am I watching?’ My parents being like, ‘Turn that off! You can’t watch that!’ So yeah, Phantasm got me. It was one of the movies that made me really like horror, so meeting Don was like meeting one of your heroes. It was one of those things where I didn’t really pitch him. I just sat down and geeked out for about ten minutes, then we started talking about it. It was like, ‘Are we interested in the same things?’
“It was going really well, and we had a deal to do it. We had a big talk with Mark Ordesky, who was doing The Lord of the Rings movies for New Line. I remember he was like, ‘I want to do this as a bigger [series]. I don’t want to do it as a one-off.’ And [Don] was going to direct. He was just the nicest guy. There’s no pretension or Hollywood bullshit about him. He was so sweet. So we just had a great conversation about it … and he was like, ‘Cool, let’s make it happen.’”
Susco also reveals that a unique bit of marketing for the potential project was bandied about during these early meetings. “We had a really cool commercial, a trailer that was designed to be like a car commercial. You were going to be moving across chrome, close up, like how they do the lights off of the chrome. It was going to be like ‘0 to 60 in 1.6 miles an hour. Can penetrate skin up to…’ What?! And then you were going to see the ball, and that was going to be the big announcement for the movie.”
So what would the story have been for this trilogy? “In my memory, I liked the idea of rebooting the franchise, but it being essentially a sequel,” Susco says. “That all of those characters, all of the original actors show up, and that it’s essentially the same thing that just never stopped and we’re kind of catching up with it.
“Same guys, many years down the road. The idea was that we wanted it to feel like it was an echo of itself for the first half of the movie, where it was very isolated. You know, a kid playing in the woods, near a mortuary, and there were strange things afoot at the funeral home. So a third or halfway through, it felt like it was a remake with a modern sheen. But then once you kinda got into it, it was Angus Scrimm, and it was Reggie Bannister. Those guys show up and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a continuing story!’”
In today’s climate of requels and legacy sequels, an approach like this might not seem like much of a novelty. But in the heyday of the horror remake craze, relaunching a well-known franchise with its original canon and cast must have seemed revolutionary. “I think that’s why we kind of had the common ground,” says Susco. “That I was like, ‘I’d rather continue the story.’ And I think that’s what he wanted to do, too. He wanted the same actors, the same crew, but I think he dug the idea of trying to fool everybody, because he also knew that’s what would make New Line happy. Because New Line had done Texas Chainsaw Massacre by then, which was a very modern reboot, and that was very successful for them.
“I think Don liked this subversiveness of essentially fooling people, getting the fanbase angry because they’d be like, ‘It’s a remake! You don’t need to do a remake!’ And then actually being like, ‘No, it’s not a remake. It just looks like a remake.’ But then essentially giving him a grander scale to continue the story that you always wanted to continue.
“I wish I could give you more details, but it was very ephemeral. It was more like, ‘Is this a writer I can work with? Am I going to hate him, or are we on the same page?’ But I went in as a lover of Phantasm. So it was easy math, you know?”
So why is it that this major studio relaunch of Phantasm never made it to screens? “It was an interesting thing,” Susco says. “It didn’t get much farther than that because they made my writing deal, then they were trying to make a deal with Don. But look, the deal didn’t happen because … I mean, he made those movies on his own. Those were his babies. And he was savvy, he was really smart. He was like, ‘I need creative control. I’m not gonna let people run away with this. So if we’re going to do this, I have to have creative control, final cut.’
“I would have loved to have done this with them, but I really respect the fact that he just wouldn’t sell it out. He wouldn’t let it be vulnerable to a company. I’m not dissing New Line, but the thing is … when you sell a property to distribute to a company like that, they’re going to want the right to do future derivative works with it. That’s just the way that goes. It’s totally fine that they would want that. But kudos to Don for being like, ‘I will never let this fall into the hands of someone who can just run with it and lock me out of it and do whatever they want with it.’ He just respected his own work too much, you know? So yeah, man. Good for him.”
In closing out our chat about this unrealized Phantasm trilogy, Susco points out that the series remains in the best possible hands to this day. “We at least have the security of knowing that it’s only gonna work if Don thinks it’s going to work well,” he says. “Because clearly he’s totally fine walking away from an enormous amount of money to do it. He will not sell it out. So that’s rare and nice.”
We’ll leave the final word to Coscarelli himself, who points out that “it was almost twenty years ago now. A long time ago. But yeah, in the intervening time, there’s always a lot of interest in doing something with Phantasm. I’m constantly fielding various levels of interest and what have you, but nothing to report on that as of yet.”
Very special thanks to Don Coscarelli and Stephen Susco for their time and insights.
This has been Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which takes a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we chat with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.
Kit, Borys (2005, March) ‘Phantasm’ in New Line’s airspace. Retrieved May 7th, 2022 from The Hollywood Reporter website: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/film/brief_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000835831
Quint (2005, March 10) PHANTASM lives again, booyyy! New Line to produce a new trilogy based on Coscarelli’s originals!! Retrieved May 7th, 2022 from Ain’t It Cool News website: http://legacy.aintitcool.com/node/19602