Writer, director and producer Don Coscarelli was well ahead of his time when fathoming Phantasm back in 1974. It was a film that tackled multiple phobias, not the least of which included abandonment, bereavement and separation anxiety. Above all, we, the audience, were reminded that “death” was not a slasher, but a stalker – a stalker that we will all inevitably meet. Of course, death’s personification – the Tall Man – demanded some theatricality: A mortician who bled yellow, commanded a fleet of flying, razor-wielding, silver spheres, whose agenda was to abduct the dead and turn them into his personal army of zombie-dwarves – and the same fate awaited any living person who happened to get in his way!
As a child, I made the mistake of watching Phantasm II, and every night thereafter, I would lay awake in bed, imagining my eventual demise. The words “You think that when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!” echoed through my head and I was convinced that, instead of a peaceful afterlife, a swift transfer to a far away undead oompa-loompa retail chain awaited me. In fact, the prospect of lumbering after an ice cream truck driver, from dimension to dimension (til the end of time) still scares me.
The Tall Man was as rich and charismatic a figure as the story itself. He may not be the most recognizable of the horror icons, but he commands respect with every strut of his plat-formed shoes. Almost 40 years later, Scrimm is still a horror movie mainstay, with roles in films such as Satan Hates You, I Sell the Dead and Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End (RM #130 – on sale next week!); his unforgettable performance has led to the creation of four Phantasm films, with fans still begging for a fifth installment. I am proud to say that Angus Scrimm was my first interview at the Weekend of Horrors in Bottrop, Germany.
You wrote liner notes and were a journalist before you turned to acting?
In the late 1950s I was working on TV Guide magazine’s Los Angeles programming pages for $50 a week, writing the brief squibs that told you what Lucy and Desi, or Matt Dillon, were doing on their shows at night. To better my income, I answered a blind ad in the Times for a freelance writer that led to occasional assignments from Capitol Records writing LP album notes. Ultimately I left TV Guide and went on staff full-time at Capitol, attending recording sessions and writing liner notes for their great stars of the day: Sinatra, Nat Cole, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Miles Davis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles – on and on.
Capitol produced pop, jazz, rock, blues, country and western, folk, religious, spoken, and with its Angel and EMI labels, classical releases, and I wrote for them all, switching exclusively to classical after ten years to work with their formidable array of superb instrumental virtuosos, conductors, singers – Itzhak Perlman, Christopher Parkening, Andre Previn, Barbirolli, Rostropovich, Du Pre, Richter, Gilels, Callas, Domingo, Sills – it doesn’t end. Capitol was genially tolerant of my acting proclivities and gave me a month’s vacation with pay to go off to play George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Edinburgh Festival in 1967 and, as long as I got my editorial duties done, to be absent as needed to film Phantasm II in 1987/88. So sometimes when you see the Tall Man staring moodily into the camera, he’s actually thinking of Itzhak Perlman and the Beethoven Concerto.
You must have quite an education in music, then.
I got far more of an education from Capitol Records. As a child in the 1930s Depression Era, I managed to scrounge together a meager collection of used 78s – Crosby, MacDonald and Eddy, Heifetz – and took violin lessons on my dad’s old pawnshop violin. He’d been a barn dance fiddler in his early years.
Correct. Funny thing. I was in New York for the premiere of Jim McKenney’s The Off Season and visited Glass Eye Pix producer Larry Fessenden‘s home. While he and Becky were busy with rehearsals for Larry’s annual marionette production of A Christmas Carol, their son Jack entertained me with his piano playing and asked me if I played. I told him about my five years of violin lessons, an admission he passed on to his dad. Larry went to Glenn McQuaid, who was finalizing the script for I Sell the Dead and said, “‘We’ve got to add a scene with Angus playing the violin!” I was aghast. I had five weeks before I was scheduled to return to New York for Glenn’s picture and spent them restudying the violin. I was lucky enough to get a couple of lessons with Mitch Newman of the L.A. Philharmonic string section before he and the orchestra went East for concerts. Mitch reminded me how to hold a violin, hold the bow, and do the fingerings and then left me with a book of basic violin methods. I practiced two to six hours a day in my bathroom where I thought nobody could hear me. Unfortunately my next door neighbors could hear me all too painfully. That nice lady subsequently confided, “I said to my husband, what on earth does he think he’s doing?” That’s me you hear on the movie soundtrack. Fortunately, clear heads prevailed and a professional violinist was hired to play the melody on the compact disc of Jeff Grace’s beautiful I Sell the Dead score.
You’ve done four films and the radio play series Tales From Beyond the Pale with Glass Eye Pix. How did you get involved with the company?
James Felix McKenney as a youth had greatly admired Phantasm. In The Off Season, his first film for Glass Eye, he had a part for a retired rodeo cowboy and thought of Lance Henriksen or me. Their budget was slim; I was scheduled to do a Chiller convention in New Jersey while Jim was filming, saving them my air fare back East, so I got the first offer. I liked the script, loved the role, said yes. We filmed in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, with a superlatively talented cast and crew – I worked on the film two or three days with the radiant New York actresses Christina Campanella and Brenda Cooney, Don Wood, Ruth Kulerman, and Fessenden himself, and they filmed the whole neat little ghost movie in nine days. That experience led to the role of the Scientist in Jim’s mini-phenomenon Automatons, a micro-budget, critically extolled anti-war film in which the human race has been all but eliminated by endless warfare, leaving robots to carry on the fighting, and to Satan Hates You, I Sell the Dead, and Graham Reznick’s “The Grandfather” in the Tales from Beyond the Pale series. I’m most fortunate McKenney and Fessenden brought me into the Glass Eye cauldron of brilliant young East Coast filmmakers. In addition to McKenney’s oeuvre and Fessenden’s own Habit, No Telling, Wendigo, The Last Winter, etc., the company has recently brought forth such diverse winnere as Wendy and Lucy, Bitter Feast, I Can See You, I Sell the Dead, Stake Land, and the Ti West threesome of thrillers The Roost, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers.
I’ve done the Tall Man so many times that it’s like, to use the apt cliche, stepping into comfortable old shoes. I don the black suit and tall boots and the Tall Man materializes, takes me over and plays himself. I suspect that when Robert DeNiro does Raging Bull, he must do formidable preparation. My prep usually is to read the script through, memorize the dialogue, and as I am memorizing and thinking about mine and the other characters’ lines and actions, my character forms spontaneously. That was true of Buddy, for example, in Coscarelli’s [Masters of Horror episode] “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road.” In the 1970s/80s, I studied with Stella Adler, famous acting teacher of Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, countless others. Stella offered a class in which she’d take a script – a Clifford Odets play, perhaps – and analyze every sentence of the dialogue word by word including even the articles “a,” “an,” and “the,” seeking depths of meaning in each. I think that that, to a degree, is the way a lot of actors instinctively work. You get the the characterization from the lines. In a well written script, it’s all there on the page. But I don’t advise obsessing over the “a”s, “an”s and “the”s.
Can you give us any insight into the character Jebediah Morningside (the Tall Man)?
Certainly. From an early age, Jebediah Morningside hated his name. First of all, “Jebediah” was Biblical and he himself was a confirmed atheist, and “Morningside” was also the name of all the family cemeteries, for God’s sake. To shed that identity, he pretended to be a battlefield doctor in Civil War skirmishes he re-staged at considerable expense on the back acres of his estate. When that failed to help, he donned a severe black suit, and sometimes a lavender dress, and went about the countryside in a schizophrenic rage exhuming corpses, murdering people, and destroying whole towns, known – and this was the therapeutic factor – only as the Tall Man.
Bob Ivy, a stuntman on Phantasm III, performed one of the greatest car stunts in the history of movies on that picture. Strapped at the wheel of a hearse, Bob raced it down the road at incredible speed to a prearranged collision spot where it was propelled into a spectacular air flight that seemed endless, flipped, and landed with a sickening crunch. Miraculously Bob was extricated uninjured but a little dazed. Before he was taken off to a hospital for a safety check, he was asked, “Bob, can we get you anything?” Bob said, “Well, could I have a silver sphere?” So the silver sphere designer on that picture, Carey Pryor, made a special sphere for Bob and presented it to him. Several years later – before he racked up a couple of notable acting credits himself as Phantasm IV‘s Demon Cop and the Bubba Ho-Tep Mummy – Bob insisted upon giving his sphere to me, saying only, “I think you should have this.” It’s still with me and I treasure it because it’s the only silver sphere I have and there aren’t many authentic ones around now, discounting the commercial replicas, but also because Bob gave it to me. I’d give it back in a minute though, if he ever asked me for it.
If there was a fifth Phantasm, besides Catherine Zeta Jones playing a mate for the Tall Man, what would you like to see in it?
I’d like to see a story with all the sparkle and inventiveness of the first Phantasm, and it would HAVE to be made with Coscarelli’s creative genius behind it. I would like to see the original cast reunited, plus as many of the exceptional talents who joined us in later installments as the plot would accommodate, and I still think Catherine Zeta Jones would be terrific.
If you could change anything about the horror film industry, what would it be?
I’m sure many things could be done to change the horror film industry for the better, but I honestly can’t think of anything I particularly object to. I like it the way it is: a nice community of extremely friendly, mutually supportive people – and that includes the fans – an amiable little society to belong to. I wish we had bigger budgets. Be nice to see some of those super rich folks who endow art galleries, symphony orchestras and universities with millions of dollars siphon off a little loot to help Coscarelli get Phantasm V, Bubba Ho-Tep II and some other projects off the ground, and Fessenden, McKenney and the other terrific talents at Glass Eye and Monsterpants get their films into production. A recent Oscar show did a montage tribute to horror films and their villains (no, the Tall Man didn’t make the cut, but he was glad to see Chucky there) and another Oscars saluted Roger Corman with Life Achievement. How about seating Corman in the Kennedy Center Honors balcony alongside the deserving Streeps, YoYo Mas, Rollinses and the President and First Lady? I forget – have they or have they not yet acknowledged Stephen King? Ray Bradbury? I demand more respect! Where do I go to Occupy?