For this entry of Phantom Limbs, we’ll be travelling back to the 20th century for an exploration of Phantasm 1999, Roger Avary’s (Pulp Fiction, Rules of Attraction) unproduced screenplay which was going to be the fourth installment in the long-running sci-fi/horror film franchise. Intended for Phantasm series creator Don Coscarelli to direct, 1999 boasted an epic post-apocalyptic story which could have acted as either a franchise capper, or a reboot which might have led to further sequels.
Joining us for this entry is Mr. Coscarelli, who discusses the project’s origins with Avary’s script, the story it would have told, why it ultimately went unmade, and what future this particular story may yet hold.
“Let me give you a little background about my longtime friendship with him,” Coscarelli begins, charting the start of his association with Roger Avary. “I was making a movie called Survival Quest in the late 1980s, way back. I hired an apprentice/intern that became my assistant editor on the film, a guy named Scott Magill. Scott was a part of this little film pack down in the south bay of LA. In that group were a dozen of his young film buddies. They were always watching movies together, making movies together, critiquing each other’s films. It was a cool little thing, and we ended up hiring a bunch of them to work on our film in entry-level jobs. I always liked to work with young people on my films, aspiring filmmakers. I like the enthusiasm, which these guys all had.
“Part of that group who had moved on a little bit and didn’t want to work on other people’s movies were Roger and Quentin [Tarantino]. But Roger used to hang out in our editing room all the time, because back in those days we had a desktop computer, and those were kind of rare. So he and his friend Scott, my assistant editor, they were constantly, on weekends and at nights, writing screenplays in the office there. So I got to know Roger, I think when he was 19 years old, and he was just a really smart, bright young guy, and I stayed friends with him through the years.”
Jumping forward a half decade or so later, Avary’s profile raised considerably after his triumph at the Academy Awards, where he and Tarantino picked up the gold for Best Original Screenplay. Perhaps surprisingly, Avary elected to use his newfound fame to bring a beloved horror franchise back to the big screen. “Roger and Quentin won the Oscar for Pulp Fiction, and I got a call from Roger like a week after he was on the Oscars telecast. ‘Let’s meet up for lunch. I want to talk to you about something.’ So I went over and met him for lunch, and we discussed how Hollywood was at his feet. He mentioned that he had all the opportunities to write all these big money projects. And he said, ‘You know, when I was working in that editing room on those scripts with Scott, you once told us a germ of an idea about Reggie in a wasteland that might be a good Phantasm sequel. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I want to write the epic kickass sequel to Phantasm.’
“And I, honestly being a little bit more mature, tried to dissuade him. I said, ‘There’s no business model for this, Roger. We just made Phantasm III, and Universal shoveled it out to direct-to-video. So to come back with the original cast in this multimillion dollar thing…’ But he was not to be deterred. I guess that was maybe 1996, and over about a two month process I just hung out with him and cheerleaded him as he wrote this script. I guess the buzz around it was Miramax might be really interested in it. Roger always intended that I would be directing, which was pretty sweet. The resulting script was just amazing. It was hyper-violent, and freaky, and just completely different from anything else and taking Phantasm into a whole ‘nother level, you know?
“So that was basically how it came to be.”
In addition to Mr. Coscarelli’s own words, the following synopsis was sourced from a pair of Ain’t It Cool News script reviews penned by Lenny Meyer and Tom Joad back in the late 90s/early aughts.
Billed on its opening page as “a screenplay about the Apocalypse and Hell on Earth”, Phantasm 1999 opens in the near future of that eponymous year, wherein we discover that the United States has been divided into three sections: L.A., California; New York, New York; and the Plague Zone. This massive mid-section of the U.S. is demarcated by massive walls guarded by armed soldiers, its stretches of land within overrun by dwarves and zombies. “Roger had all kinds of influences,” Coscarelli notes. “I mean, we were watching The Omega Man at the time, way before they made I Am Legend. I think that was some of the influence for a depopulated wasteland. And there were some elements of other films like that that were also inspirations.”
It’s in the Plague Zone that the Tall Man reigns, having set up shop in a Mormon mausoleum (the largest of its type in the world). “The Tall Man has taken up residence in the giant underground catacombs under the Great Salt Lake, where every Mormon since Joseph Smith is entombed. It’s like a great Mormon mortuary or mausoleum, this secret thing that Roger came up with. A little transgressive, but wild.”
Here, our villain has used a version of the yellow ooze he’d previously employed as embalming fluid to create “the Bag Plague”. This utterly lethal disease swells its victim’s heads to the point that their noggins explode, spraying the surrounding area with pus and bone fragments fired at such force that they can penetrate steel – all in service of infecting even more people with the plague (dubbed “Baggers” after their infection). “It would cause people’s heads to swell up and pop,” Coscarelli laughs. “And when they popped, it was like a blast zone around it. If you’ve got a droplet of it in your mouth, it was like 99% fatal.”
Meanwhile, four-barrel shotgun-totin’ ice cream man and Phranchise hero Reggie is reintroduced, “kind of as a hardened warrior,” Coscarelli reveals. “He’s been suffering nightmares which lead him to believe that his longtime friend Mike has been abducted by the Tall Man and is being held in the Negative dimension. Our hero eventually realizes it’s up to him to save his buddy, so off he sets with an arsenal and an armored version of the series’ iconic Plymouth Cuda. “He’s got his tricked out car with the armor plating. The Battlecuda, as it was called.” The only problem is, Reggie must renounce his citizenship to be allowed into the Plague Zone to do so, forever condemning himself to the infected wasteland.
“He’s also got a sidekick,” Coscarelli says. “A squirrel monkey named Titi. He’s heading into the Zone … it’s kind of like Escape from New York. You go in there, and you have to renounce your citizenship. You can go in, but you cannot come back out. So he’s going into this place to find him.”
Readers eventually discover that the government is familiar with some aspects of the Tall Man’s operation – specifically, that his portal room (from the original film) allows access to the Tall Man’s home world. To finally defeat him, the government sends in a group of soldiers carrying a “universe-destroying” bomb to detonate in his dimension. “Concurrently – this is the other great part of Roger’s script – [there is] a secret government operation, this group called the ‘S Squad’. They’re basically a suicide squad working on behalf of the American government, and they’re led by this freaky, tough commander – Colonel Heckleman. They’ve given him this thing called the ‘Quantum Phase Device’, which is like a relic of the Cold War. In theory, it will dissolve dimensions, but they’d never tried it out so they don’t know. They’ve given this package to the S Squad, which has taken a helicopter into the Plague Zone and made it inside the Tall Man’s dimension.”
This group eventually runs into Reggie. “So Reggie’s headed for Salt Lake City. He goes through the wasteland, winds up in Salt Lake City, runs into the S Squad who just arrived and he tries to team up with them, but they think he’s just this civilian. Like, ‘Get out of our way, we have a mission, you’re just an idiot, get outta here!’
“So Reggie ends up … wandering around, looking for some supplies. He goes into this Piggly Wiggly department store and gets into the basement, and there’s like 5,000 of these people, infected. He accidentally wakes them up, and they all come screaming out and … almost wipe out the S Squad. Reggie saves their ass basically. Now he’s teamed up with S Squad and they’re heading into the Tall Man’s lair, and they’ve got to get over there and complete the mission. Reggie needs to find Mike and they need to detonate the Quantum Phase Device.”
Along the way, readers are treated to the Tall Man’s origin, which reveals him to be an extension of a “corpuscular projector” puppeted by the “Tall Mankind”, a massive Tall Man head which replaces the villain with a clone every time he dies. In addition, Mike is divided into “good” and “bad” versions of himself, while the Tall Man’s mausoleum is revealed to be a “hyperdimensional tesseract” which exists outside of time and space (meaning present day characters could possibly run into their younger counterparts from previous visits).
The screenplay culminates with Reggie and Co. waging war on the Tall Man’s minions within the catacombs of his mortuary and into his home dimension, with Reggie’s monkey Titi saving his friend by clawing out the Tall Man’s eyes. “If I’m not mistaken, I think it’s Titi who ends up detonating the device. There’s a big fight, and the satchel with the Quantum Phase Device gets tossed to the side, then the monkey grabs it to finish the mission. It’s really a lot of fun stuff in there. So that’s the story in a nutshell. Really wild, really cool.”
This writer wonders if this entry might very well have acted as a conclusion to the entire franchise, given the ending. “I think at that time, the idea was to do the series finale, and then do a couple more big ones if it was successful, in that vein. But we just never got there.”
“Roger finished the script, I’m doing handsprings. I love reading this thing. It’s just unlike any Phantasm there ever was. Then we started shopping it around, and Miramax immediately passed on it. All the other studios passed on it. I’m sorry to say that it came back to my original instinct, where they were like, ‘Well, okay, they’ve made Phantasm, it was theatrical success. They made Phantasm II, it went theatrical. Phantasm III went to video…’ Which was like a graveyard of movies back then. There just wasn’t a business model for coming back with a $10-20 million Phantasm movie. That was just the rote answer we got.
“We had a number of situations where we thought we had the movie set up. In 1997, we had a viable distributor that told us they were going to fund it and shook hands on it, and we had to go to the Cannes Film Festival together to have the meeting. Then a week later, it turns out they had just sold the company and the executives were all gone. So it was up and down, those types of situations. It wasn’t that we just gave up on it.”
While attempts to make this huge sequel continued, Coscarelli was able to continue the franchise at a smaller scale. “In the meantime, I made Phantasm IV, which was super low budget, because I had an opportunity and some money to do that. [It was made] with the idea that it could just be a holding pattern and … there was nothing in it that precluded us making Phantasm 1999. It was always meant to be Phantasm 1999. As you can remember when you were a youth, ‘1999’ just always felt apocalyptic, a doomsday feel about it. But then the turn of the century happened and the title wasn’t relevant. I think there was a Phantasm 2013. Then Roger came up with the Phantasm’s End title, which I was always a little lukewarm on. I didn’t want to end the series! [laughs] But I deferred to his judgment on that.”
It’s at this point in the conversation that Coscarelli reveals that an iconic horror star was lined up to potentially star in this sequel. “So I made Phantasm IV: Oblivion, and I was looking around for funding for Bubba Ho-Tep at the time. I had been talking to Bruce Campbell about appearing in it, then I met with Roger one day and we came up with the idea of teaming up Bruce Campbell with the Phantasm franchise. Roger and I went and had breakfast with Bruce one day and pitched it to him, and he freaking loved it, with the idea that he would play Colonel Heckleman, the head of the suicide squad who teams up with Reggie. The fans of Evil Dead and Phantasm would have loved it. But, the studio bigshots were clueless.”
Coscarelli also notes that he occasionally drew some inspiration from Avary’s Phantasm 1999 screenplay when crafting Phantasm IV: Oblivion and Phantasm V: Ravager. “Roger was always generous about letting me use some influences. In Phantasm IV, we did one sequence … Mike travels through a portal and arrives in Los Angeles, downtown. Deserted Wilshire Boulevard, and there’s the Tall Man just walking down Main Street. Mike runs around the corner and finds his brother Jody, and then Jody says ‘We can’t stay here. The risk of infection is too high.’ Then they go off and continue the movie. So the idea was that we could be in a nice little holding pattern that would then make sense if we made Roger’s film. Then we were able to put in an appearance of the Battlecuda in Phantasm: Ravager at the end, as an homage to Roger’s brilliance.”
So is there any chance we might yet see Phantasm 1999 in some form? Given the seemingly definitive ending of Ravager, the chance for any further follow-ups seems thin. “Well, as I’ve said before, I would love to. When I made Ravager, the fifth film, I did not direct it because I directed four Phantasms. How many can one man direct in a lifetime? I think four is enough. But I’ve always said that I’d be fascinated to watch Phantasm interpreted through some other filmmaker’s lens, so that opportunity is out there. You know, it could happen one day. I haven’t given it much thought lately. The other thing is, it’s a painful thing to think about. I mean, I’m laughing here, but I should actually be crying. Roger’s screenplay could have been a great movie. It’s a bit of a painful subject. But, you know. A lot of time, a lot of water under the bridge.
“I would love to see a graphic novel adaptation of that screenplay, which might be a great entrée and a way to renew interest in it and open up doors for that script one day in the future. And you know, now the timing might be right.”
Comic book publishers out there – the creator of Phantasm wants to put out an adaptation of an unmade sequel penned by an Academy Award winner. Are you listening?
Speaking of Avary, Coscarelli has nothing but kind words for his friend and collaborator. “Roger Avary went on to direct some great movies after that. He created a film called Rules of Attraction… featuring one of the best directorial uses of splitscreen and reverse motion I have ever seen. It was fantastic, almost ‘Kubrickian’ in nature. It’s incredible. I remember him telling me about it before he started shooting, and I couldn’t even conceive of what he was talking about. Roger can be so enthusiastic. ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ And then I watched the movie and I got it. A good guy and a great talent, and I wish we could have brought this movie to the big screen.”
In closing out our talk, Coscarelli provides his final thoughts on this Phantasm that never was, but might yet be (in some form). “Roger was really thinking big. I think that’s the lesson I took from him. You know, why are we always thinking so small? And I’ll tell you why, because my budgets are always so limited. [laughs] But what I learned from it was to try to not be restrained in my thinking, creatively. Thinking big is never wrong, and that’s what Roger did on that project. That really impressed me.”
Very special thanks to Don Coscarelli for his 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.
Meyer, Lenny (1998, December) A look at Roger Avary’s treatment to PHANTASM 1999. Retrieved May 21st, 2022 from Ain’t It Cool News website: http://legacy.aintitcool.com/node/2707
Joad, Tom (2000, March) TomJoad survives Roger Avary’s PHANTASM. Retrieved May 21st, 2022 from Ain’t It Cool News website: http://legacy.aintitcool.com/node/5369
Hamman, Cody (2013, December) Film Appreciation – Phantasm 2013 A.D.. Retrieved May 21st, 2022 from Life Between Frames website: https://lifebetweenframes.blogspot.com/2013/12/phantasm-2013-ad.html
Silver Sphere Corporation (2021) The Phantasm Timeline. Retrieved May 21st, 2022 from Phantasm.com website: https://www.phantasm.com/history