Don Coscarelli was the youngest film director to secure distribution from a major studio for his debut Jim the World’s Greatest. Although it wasn’t a financial success, it heralded an assured talent whose enthusiasm and innovative approach helped him prevail over his lack of experience. At eighteen years of age, barely an adult himself, it was perhaps Coscarelli’s unbridled youth that, in his earliest endeavors, inspired stories told from youthful points of view, featuring clever underdogs facing incredible odds. Coscarelli’s non-horror output, which includes independents Jim the World’s Greatest (1976) and Kenny & Company (1976), along with studio productions The Beastmaster (1982) and Survival Quest (1988), are unique entries in his oeuvre that exhibit Coscarelli’s versatility, and champion the indomitable spirit of the dark horse.
These films share overlapping themes, including discussions of perseverance, self-esteem, loyalty, and grief evidenced in Coscarelli’s entire body of work. Coscarelli’s memoir True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking (excerpts included here), as well as Dustin McNeil’s Phantasm Exhumed, chronicle Coscarelli’s challenging path, and provide wonderful insights into the personal and professional bonds forged by Coscarelli with his cast and crew. Reminiscing about disastrous encounters with “experienced” crews who abandoned him in his earliest efforts, Coscarelli says in his book, “I learned a valuable lesson about staying close to my roots and making movies with a small, dedicated team of creative collaborators.” It was these enduring communal relationships – productions driven by close friends and family – that shaped his career, as well as his storytelling.
Coscarelli’s debut unfolds primarily from the perspective of Jim (Gregory Harrison), a high school football player finishing up his senior year. Unlike his teammates and friends, Jim shoulders a heavy load, working nights at the local burger joint while caring for his much younger brother Kelly (Robbie Wolcott). The siblings’ lives are complicated by their troubled father, a failed salesman and abusive alcoholic who harbors a deep resentment toward Kelly for their mother leaving the family, whose cruel behavior toward Kelly culminates in violent outbursts. Kelly relies on Jim to help him contend with his horrific home life, and to understand the world at large. Much like Coscarelli’s iconic Phantasm (1979), the narrative focus is on the tight-knit relationship between two brothers, sharing touching moments together. The film’s poignancy, most prominently the child abuse factoring largely into the story, is balanced by the tenderness shared between these siblings whose affection radiates from the screen.
The film marks the film debut of Angus Scrimm (credited as Rory Guy), whose brooding portrayal of the patriarch hinted at the menace inherent in his future Tall Man character. The character is despicable, yet Scrimm does his best to portray him in a sympathetic light, even if we view him as irredeemable. Gregory Harrison would go on to have a prolific career in television, including roles on popular television series Trapper John, M.D., Falcon Crest, and One Tree Hill. He anchors the film with a strong performance that exhibits the frustration and anguish Jim experiences over the dire circumstances of his life. The film’s ending, involving the murder of Kelly at the hands of his father, and Jim’s subsequent attempt at revenge, is bleak, ending on an ambiguous note that either offers a glimmer of hope for the anguished Jim, or hints at a deteriorating mental state, depending on the viewer’s interpretation.
Coscarelli lightened the tone of his second feature Kenny & Company, a coming-of-age story set during Halloween. The film involves a pair of best friends, Kenny and Doug, who confront the rigors of adolescence with pranks, skateboarding, and general mischief. The film capitalizes on its festive Halloween atmosphere and suburban setting, depicting youthful exuberance and heartache experienced through its charismatic young people. As Coscarelli describes, “My protagonist Kenny essentially represented me as a witness of, and participant in, that strange, funny, frightening, and exhilarating process of growing into adolescence.” Even though the film is comedic, Coscarelli doesn’t shy away from headier themes, taking darker paths into discussions of bullying and death affecting its gutsy characters, who experience triumphs and despair in equal measure.
The film is notable for the discovery of A. Michael Baldwin, who plays Kenny’s best friend and co-conspirator Doug, whose magnetism is undeniable. Coscarelli also called upon trusted collaborators from his first feature, including his own parents Kate and Dac Coscarelli, to once again deliver a quality feature on a shoestring budget. Again, financial success would elude Coscarelli on this endeavor, but the seeds were planted for his next project, his career-defining horror film Phantasm, inspired in part by Kenny’s crowd-pleasing scary scene in a haunted house, and starring now Coscarelli stalwart Baldwin.
The Beastmaster (1982) was Coscarelli’s attempt to distance himself from the success of Phantasm for his fear of being pigeonholed as a horror director. He passed on an earlier opportunity to do a studio-backed sequel, and instead shifted to a sword and sorcery epic loosely based on Andre Norton’s novel. The film stars Marc Singer as the titular barbaric hero Dar who can communicate telepathically with a variety of wild animals, including a pair of cunning ferrets, a noble eagle, and a ferocious black panther. Seeking vengeance for the slaughter of his entire village by the ruthless Jun horde, Dar teams up with Kiri (Tanya Roberts), Seth (John Amos), and Tal (Josh Milrad), to rescue his father, the deposed King Zed, from the evil priest Maxx (Rip Torn). They are also tasked with helping the city’s inhabitants to defend against the savage force of the Jun horde. These dynamics prove once again Coscarelli’s penchant for depicting determined underdogs overcoming incredible odds.
Despite working with his largest budget yet, the troubled production was marked by studio interference, casting clashes, battles with entitled actors, and producers swapping out lenses without the permission of Coscarelli’s cinematographer. The miserable experience prompted long-time Coscarelli collaborator (and the film’s co-writer) Paul Pepperman to exit the industry altogether, leaving an exhausted Coscarelli doubting his own abilities. Coscarelli, however, would persevere with help coming from surprising places. Coscarelli recalls a time an esteemed crew member stood up to executives on his behalf.
“At the end of our first week of shooting, my cinematographer, John Alcott, got wind of the fact that production had decided to fire me. For reasons known only to him, John objected. Vociferously, John, without my knowledge, let it be known to production that if I were to be fired, he would immediately quit The Beastmaster.” Coscarelli forged ahead despite mounting setbacks, and though the film had disappointing box office results, it became a beloved cult classic via relentless play on cable television. Even in The Beastmaster’s high concept fantasy world, Coscarelli’s core value remained: the depiction of family, adopted or otherwise, uniting in the face of overwhelming adversity, which extended to his own crew members rallying on his behalf.
Coscarelli’s Survival Quest (1989) has practically disappeared into obscurity, which is a shame, because it’s an intriguing film that revealed a new facet of its director. The story follows a ragtag bunch of survivalists-in-training, taken into the Sierra mountain wilderness by Hank Chambers (Lance Henriksen), a mountain man hoping to instill mutual trust and a spiritual appreciation for nature in his outfit. The group is composed of folks from all walks of life, including wise guy Joey (Paul Provenza), recent divorcee Cheryl (Catherine Keener), ex-convict Gray (Dermot Mulroney), and retiree Hal (Ben Hammer), none of whom had ever set foot in a forest. Danger looms when they cross paths with the Blue Legion, another survivalist group of trigger-happy teenagers on a training exercise under the tyrannical leadership of Jake Cannon (Mark Rolston). Raider (Steve Antin), a walking powder keg in Cannon’s squad, stabs the Blue Legion’s leader and blames it on the Survival Questers, triggering a battle between the two factions. When Hank is mortally injured, his trainees band together using their newfound survival skills to make it out alive.
Coscarelli takes a realistic approach to Survival Quest’s narrative, with plausible stunts and action sequences that feel high stakes, yet grounded. He capitalized on the expansive glory of the Sierras, simultaneously gorgeous and harrowing, positioning his characters on treacherous terrain, and enabling his cast to work together on camera and behind the scenes. Once again, the budget limits inspired teamwork and camaraderie among the cast and crew, who shared in the labor while navigating the remote and often dangerous conditions of the landscape. Coscarelli says, “Once we started shooting, the process of getting to the selected river locations often required humping the camera and equipment half a mile over rocky riverbank. I have always been of the belief that small crews where everything is working toward the common goal is the best way to go. I actually find that lugging equipment makes me think more clearly and takes my mind off the day’s problems. I’ve spent time in the luxurious trailers of director friends on big movies and I just think it’s entitled bullshit. It separates you from everyone, including actors and the crew. It makes us all part of a team!”
In ensuing years, Coscarelli settled back into the horror genre, expanding the Phantasm mythology through several sequels, and tackling wildly strange and entertaining adaptations of Joe R. Lansdale’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) and Jason Pargin’s (aka David Wong) John Dies at the End (2012). These films marked the continuation of Coscarelli’s family first approach to filmmaking, smaller budgeted affairs made with grit, ingenuity, and pure love. Let’s hope Coscarelli continues making the films he wants, regardless of genre, surrounded by his trusted team of underdogs.