As a Don Coscarelli/Phantasm super-phan and avid collector/amateur chronicler of movie novelizations, this has long been a dream article of mine. And the reason the dream became a reality is filmmaker/comedian Kevin Maher, a fellow Coscarelli enthusiast who got in touch after reading a piece I did on John Dies at the End and, very generously, offered to send me a copy of the Phantasm novelization.
I didn't think I'd ever get the chance to read what I consider the holy grail of novelizations so many many thousand thanks to Kevin, whose blog is full of hilarious writings and videos you should absolutely check out immediately. His recent posted award-winning King Kong-based short film is particularly great (and really, great KING KONG-based short films is something there really ought to be more of). Seriously, stop reading this and go to his site.
"A severed finger that doesn't move is just a severed finger. And how could he explain that?"
Creating a cohesive text from Phantasm is hardly an enviable task. While the basic story of two brothers and their ice cream vending companion gearing up against an unfathomable evil that's invaded their small town is relatively straightforward, anyone who's seen the film can appreciate the hypnagogic spell Don Coscarelli works that makes it so unique and unclassifiable. The movie's narrative aberrations, chimerical lapses into subrealities, unreliable shifts of perspective and abrupt vagaries of tone seem unadaptable to the printed word. Even moreso, the real trick of Phantasm is its inimitable balance of extreme otherness with a stable familiarity - the down-to-earth characters' gradual acceptance of the weird happenings at Morningside becomes key to the audience accessing the movie's inaccessible mythology. Based on that, it makes sense that the right person to tap into that would be someone with a strong familiarity with the film itself from inception to release: who better than Kate Coscarelli, the director's mother!
That's right - the adorable mom from Kenny & Company wrote the Phantasm novelization, and a respectful and knowledgable one at that. Coscarelli, who served as makeup artist, costumer, production designer and extra on the production, clearly knows her son's film from top to bottom, which is saying a lot since the top and bottom of Phantasm is practically indefinable (my own mother couldn't even stay awake when I showed her a cut of the film I made). Credited alongside husband D.A. Coscarelli as executive producer of Don's first two films,* the novelization was her first book but, it turns out, not just some one-off valentine to her independent filmmaker son. Don's career had apparently awakened an artstic light in his homemaker mother's soul and, in 1984 at age 56, Coscarelli published her first original novel. She went on to write nine successful books before her death in 1999, using her experiences as a military wife and movie director mom as the catalyst for such steamy works of romantic fiction as Pretty Women and Fame & Fortune. So not only is this the first time a director's mother adapted his movie as a book (just imagine if Margaret Eastwood had written the Tightrope novelization, or Mrs. McG the one for Charlie's Angels), it's also the only instance, that I'm aware, of a future bestselling author getting her start with a movie novelization. [Just to avoid confusion, from this point on when I mention "Coscarelli" I'm referring to Kate.]
That's all well and good, although going into the novelization I admit to being somewhat guarded against how a Judith Krantz-like sensibility applied to the world of Phantasm would play on paper. My concern was immediately validated by Coscarelli's handling of the film's opening scene in the cemetery, where Tommy is seduced The Tall Man (Coscarelli capitalizes the "The" so I'll follow suit) in the guise of The Lady in Lavendar. The future author of Leading Lady and Women on Top globs some gaudy spice into the proceedings:
"He looked up at her, writhing and gasping as she waved those gorgeous knockers in his face...and suddenly, he could restain his passion no longer. As he came, his tender organ stetching and straining inside that strange and warm orifice, she too seemed to reach that peak and descend."
This chintzy bit of drug store paperback erotica is slightly off-putting (apparently Forrest J. Ackerman, who considered publishing the book at the behest of Angus Scrimm, was allegedly so offended by the mere mention of the female area he refused to read past the opening chapter), but the writer immediately redeems herself by applying her garish prose to the description of the knife being plunged into Tommy's aorta, to "oxygenated red blood" gushing from the wound, to the fevered vision of the Lady in Lavender morphing into a dark face with "pallid skin with deep sunken eye sockets." Tommy detects a grin from his now knocker-less killer, and Coscarelli has the fading victim wonder:
Or was it just a dying man's phantasm?
This chapter-capper is near-perfect: even as the beautiful temptress transforms into a beaming Tall Man, the line brilliantly turns the cheap thrill of a graveyard conquest into the mockery of death, the fear of which being always at the center of the Phantasm films. Older brother Jody dismissively states that "There's only one thing to do in this town," referring to meaningless escapist sex but actually talking about dying. Notably, The Lady in Lavender is the one to echo Jody's mindset in the film - "You wanna show me the one thing there is to do in this town?" - but in the novelization Coscarelli has Jody actually say the line (and Mike think it to himself) because she wants to bring this theme to the foreground of the book. The Tall Man and his minions and the constant discharge of fluids, be it blood from a wound or urine from an emptying bladder** or liquified brain matter out the back of a drilling sphere, as Death Incarnate: not even unnatural death, just the symbolic act of coupling and giving away life through ejaculation (whether the standard marriage/children/death scenario or tawdry graveyard sex ending in sacrificial stabbing) or the more immediate sudden impact with metal (be it a car crash or a flying silver sphere). It's the waste and humiliation of death that drives Jody's desire to leave the town, to stay away from the "one thing to do" that leads to an ignoble pantsless end overseen by a smirking undertaker. The terror of Phantasm and its sequels is that we all die in the end, and to doubly suggest that our final orgasm/phantasm as the blood drains from our body is the thing to fear and avoid...Coscarelli just nails that in a very tricky and cunningly obscene way (and since Tommy is technically the first and only guy to get his rocks off in the entire Phantasm series - even Jody's opportunity to get his tender organ stretched by the Lavendar Lady later on is interrupted - why not sensationalize it?)
Whether you buy into that or not, it's no big deal because beyond the lurid description of Tommy and Lavender engaging in the ol' horizontal danse macabre, Coscarelli's approach to the adaptation is completely unpretentious. Probably an advantage to her being a first time novelist, as a fancypants veteran would have no doubt been tempted to match the film's incredible tricks by weaving through its opaque narrative with flourishes of character internalizations or risky fragmentary writing. Honestly, I might have even been hoping for something like that going into a Phantasm novelization - something as experimental and unpredictable as the movie - but after reading the book I'm convinced that method would have more likely isolated the reader rather than tapping into that familiarity that keeps the film grounded enough to access. Perhaps wisely, the novelization doesn't spend five paragraphs on the sphere's flight through the mortuary halls - it's clearly geared at readers who've seen the movie enough to provide their own visual cues of homicidal orbs and diminished wraiths. Even the features of The Tall Man are restricted to simple descriptions of his "spidery arms and legs" and the "waxy, transparent color" of his skin, because what depiction could do Angus Scrimm justice - his height isn't even embellished beyond his honorary modifier. Coscarelli couldn't have been blamed for going nuts with the Lovecraftian adjectives, as many a shlocky horror writer tends to do, but for the most part she discreetly avoids overwriting to focus on the events of the film.
The novelization was commissioned by Avco Embassy Pictures at the same time as the movie but published only in Japan,*** released for the first time in the states in a limited 500 copy run by PULP XMACHINA in 2002, making it (as far as I know) the only novelization demanded by fans of the movie. The book is dedicated to the phans (although I suppose it wasn't a dedication offered to the scant audience of 1979, probably it was added by Don for the 2002 edition but if you happen to have the original printing and can read Japanese by all means prove me wrong) and written for them: Coscarelli knows that the fellowship Phantasm viewers feel with the story and characters is more than enough to fill in what she's left out, in its own way another level of the familiarity that brings fans close to the characters. And short of hearing the haunting Myrow/Seagrave theme, this is Phantasm through and through - as much as I appreciate novelizations that try to stand on their own and exist on their separate terms, this one uses knowledge of the film to allow the reader to appreciate the story's less hypothetical attributes.
Which isn't to say that there aren't interesting new expansions within the novelization. The town gets a name - China Grove (it's no Nilbog, but it'll do) - which is helpful since it's long been misidentified as "Morningside" (name of the funeral home) or "Colton" (name of the road where the Cuda is chased by the hearse). We get more information on Jody and Mike's personal life: turns out the brothers inherited a bank from their dead folks; this fact is off-handedly referenced in one of the movie's deleted scenes where Jody jokingly threatens to repossess Reggie's ice cream truck (another deleted scene with Jody sitting in an office smoking a cigar with a gal in his lap also makes a lot more sense now). It explains why Jody doesn't have a job and can sit around noodling on his guitar on the porch all day. There's a line in the movie that's easy to miss, in a scene focusing on Mike, where a buddy says to Jody, "I heard you were tourin' with the Stones last summer?" Coscarelli gets a little more into Jody the Roadie's time away from home, to give a better sense of his frustration over being tied down to the town: I mean, you don't return from a sweet gig collecting Mick Jagger's sticky discarded sweat rags off a dirty stage and just settle down to a life as a successful bank owner, right? Seriously though, it adds a lot to Jody's character and balances the characterization of the brothers in the book, even if it makes more sense in the movie to focus on Mike and leave Jody as something of a mystery the way adult siblings are to adoring younger brothers - also, if the banker backstory made it into the movie, it would beg the question "Why doesn't Jody just foreclose on the funeral home?"
Appropriately, Kate Coscarelli shifts attention from the famously predominately male atmosphere of Phantasm by beefing up the roles of the female characters. The sizable roles of Liz, Alchemy and Rocky in the sequels make it easy to forget what a sausage factory the first film is, and Coscarelli amends that somewhat by making the feminine presence in the book a little more apparent. Suzy, in the movie a faceless blonde townie kidnapped by the dwarfs alongside sister Sally, becomes Jody's on-again/off-again love interest (even though he two-times her with The Lady in Lavender, the possibility of reconciliation is at least hinted at prior to her abduction). Myrtle, the boys' sassy, gluttonous maid, appears or is mentioned in pretty much every scene set at the house, as opposed to the movie where she's almost as much an enigma as The Tall Man, popping up out of the darkness to give Reggie a coronary - although Reggie identifies her by name, her role and presence in the house are never explained and we never see her again. (Her bizarre appearance in the movie is so in keeping with the rest of the film, learning Myrtle's backstory is actually a little disappointing, similar to the common complaint that too much of The Tall Man's origins is given away in OblIVion.)
Coscarelli's version of the psychic old lady in the wheelchair not only gets a name - Mrs. Starr - she actually gets some lines, in a scene unique to the novelization where Mike returns to her little cottage only to learn the granddaughter has gone missing. No word however whether the girl, Sarah, is among the "scared rabbits" Reggie frees at Morningside - her fate in the book remains ambiguous, although the description is cool: "The growl of the Cuda's engine drowned out the sound of Sarah's screams." Aunt Belle, a novelization-only character, is the Pearson boys' only living relative with whom Jody is planning to ditch Mike, who reminds Belle of her Korean War casualty son "Patso." The only added male characters are just one-dimensional enemies for Jody: Mr. Norby, the fuddy duddy bank manager irritated by Jody's refusal to take his job seriously, and Sheriff Wade, a bully-lawman who gave Jody a hard time when he was a misfit teen but now finds himself blackmailed by bank loans into leaving him alone and even allowing Mike to drive the Cuda around town - Wade, like his deputy Jack Shore, is mentioned but never actually plays a part in the story.
Two additional characters who never make an appearance in the book or movie are given interesting origins in the novelization that add to the equally fascinating and frustrating mythology of the Phantasm world. Coscarelli lets us in on the tragic tale of Charlie Hathaway, the former owner of Morningside, who was either murdered or hung himself following the scandal of a body left for open viewing with its severed penis sticking out of its mouth (a visual the book shares with, but apparently pre-dated, the grisly fate of a character in Stephen King's The Dark Half). This story gives Morningside a more sinister bend, and I half-expected the unidentified caretaker who's in cahoots with The Tall Man - the poor bastard who becomes the first victim of the sphere - to be revealed by Coscarelli as Hathaway, resurrected in order to continue serving the supernatural new owners around the funeral home (either willingly or unwillingly, depending on what that business with the severed penis was all about). But Coscarelli never links the two in any way, referring to the caretaker generically right up to his gory demise. The other interesting story is that of "old" Mrs. Glunter, former owner of the antique shop who suffered a stroke and ended up rotting in a convalescent home. Mike thinks about her as he's moving about the antique shop: his shame and revulsion at seeing Mrs. Glunter in her current state makes a nice parallel to the humiliation of the aberrant abuse of dead bodies by The Tall Man & company, and provides early hints of the dehumanization of nursing homes that would play a big part in Bubba Ho-Tep.
The Hathaway and Glunter backstories seems like they must have come from the mind of Kate Coscarelli rather than Don, if only that - since there's no dialogue directly referring to them - there's no place they could have possibly gone in the movie. But whether Don provided his mother with character/town backgrounds before she wrote the book, it's clear just how fully she understands his movie from the novelization's focus on the film's nuances. Like the film, the novelization focuses on tangible objects that hold the characters to the substantial world. Even something as apparently insignificant a detail as the lighter Mike takes with him when he sneaks into Morningside that he uses to hold open the lid of the coffin in which he's hiding is present in the novelization. That's because the lighter is a subtle symbol for the meager possession that quite literally keeps Mike from being trapped in his final resting place. The heroes' props become their crucial tethers to the living world and feasible reality The Tall Man's forces try so vehemently to pull them from, whether it's their vehicles - the infamous Cuda with its 426 Hemi V8 engine, Mike's Hodaka Road Toad motorbike (which The Tall Man separates him from in their first confrontation; in the novelization, it's moved earlier so it becomes TM's very first appearance), Reggie's ice cream truck - or tiny objects like Mike's lighter or Reggie's tuning fork. In the book and novel, these items are mirrored by otherwordly counterparts - the Cuda/hearse, the tuning fork/planetary gateway - and give the boys a conversant insight into how to defeat them. Most clearly connected is Mrs. Starr's oblong box (or Gom jabbar, as we Dune fans know it), and Coscarelli adds a scene where Mike returns to the fortuneteller's parlor and takes the opportunity to feel around the table and try to figure out if there was some trick to the box's magical appearance/disappearance, at this point desperate to connect the supernatural with the corporeal.
Going back to the book's antique shop scene, Coscarelli explores even further how the grotesque artifacts of The Tall Man's army have corrupted Mike's sense of familiarity. Mike thinks about how often he's come to the store, and the solace he finds in browsing the unsold items on its shelves:
"There were things happening that were so far beyond his understanding that he needed some comfort and relief."
But he now finds it difficult:
"Somehow, all the old familiar things that he used to love so much now seemed gloomy and menacing. The green Chinese lions appeared to be snarling at him."
Of course, The Tall Man personally invades these private objects with his presence in the old timey photograph atop a funeral wagon in front of Morningside, his image turning directly to Mike as if mockingly confronting him with the idea that death debases even the consoling intimacy of personal items (the memories of which, as death approaches, tending to fade into oblivion). Whenever I show Phantasm to a new viewer, I'm worried what they'll think of the boys' excitement at arming up against the menace - that they might mislabel the Pearsons and their bald buddy as hick gun nuts rather than understand that weapons in the Phantasm-verse are just as much vigorous indications of reality as they are practical tools against inescapable fate (such as the lovingly-constructed MacGuyver-esque shotgun shell/push pin/hammer combination Mike uses to escape the confinement of his room). Coscarelli sums up that idea, and the whole concept of reliance on incorrupt objects, thusly:
"Jody...was frightened, for the concept of another dimension overwhelmed him, and the implications of a power that could not be controlled by the mortal weapons of guns and muscle was staggering."
Not a bad line - it just manages to sum up the core of the Phantasm series in one sentence.
While Coscarelli (like any of us) couldn't have guessed where Don intended to take the series after the first movie, her decisions as to which deleted scenes to include in the novelization suggest some remarkable foresight.**** Before the dawn of laserdisc/DVD, novelizations were the only place one could go for major story differences and material excised from the finished movie, and Coscarelli had loads to work with based on the crazy amount of Phantasm phootage that ended up in Part IV alone. But none of the OblIVion "flashback" footage shot during production of the first movie is included in Coscarelli's book; could she have sensed that Mike's snaring of The Tall Man by hanging him from a tree only to release him would be best saved for the third sequel? I only mention it because I fully expected her to include, at least, the tiny bit of conversation between Reggie and Mike in the ice cream truck on the way to the antique store that ended up becoming such a poignant final scene in OblIVion - even in the first movie, there's a shot of the two laughing and chatting amiably as they head to the shop in the truck (the only piece of the scene that made it into Part 1). The novelization's version? "Mike and Reggie rode to the antique store in silence." Not only that, Coscarelli goes so far as to have Reggie's dropping off Mike repeated through two perspectives, the first by sisters Suzy and Sally when they call Jody to confirm Mike's arrival ("The usually garrulous Reggie hadn't even said hello"), then through Mike's viewpoint as he enters the store ("Mike...said a muffled hello, and walked past them. He had nothing more to say.")
It almost seems like Coscarelli is making a point of leaving out the ice truck scene: not only are the two friends not comforting each other by joking around, or apprehensively commenting on the strange sounds that accompany them ("It's just the wind...") they're not even speaking, and continue not to speak when Mike exits the truck. Most notable though is Coscarelli's circumvention of the even more famous ice cream truck scene, the slow motion shot of a casually stomping The Tall Man pausing by the back of the truck to glare at Mike from across the street, only to ambiguously wince at the gust of carbon dioxide that emits from the truck's frozen compartment. Mike interprets this reaction as an aversion to cold in a deleted scene where he shoots The Tall Man with a fire extinguisher; ultimately, this moment wouldn't pay off in the final cut of a film until Part 3. Coscarelli doesn't include the fire extinguisher scene, and when describing The Tall Man glaring at Mike, leaves the demon's reaction obscure ("He seemed transfixed by the cold vapor, and slowly rotated his body and lifted his hands as if to touch the cold...or fend it off"), apparently so it could be addressed much, much further down the line.
Because of Coscarelli's humble approach to the adaptation, the narrative doesn't attempt to superfluously explain the film's weirdest moments. One such moment I eagerly anticipated while reading the novelization was Mike lying in the middle of the road after being pitched head-first through the back window of the moving Volkswagen Beetle by bloodthirsty dwarfs. Mike remains facedown on the concrete, seemingly dead, while the film continuously cuts back to Jody sitting at home, staring silently forward, almost knowingly, until Mike stirs and stands up. The popular interpretation of this moment is that the brothers share some unspoken psychic bond: Jody not only senses his brother's in danger, he somehow heals him or brings him back to life. It's one of those great moments from the film that formulates the illogical (miraculous recovery? psychic mending?) into something perceivable by use of the familiar - namely, the unbreakable bond between two brothers. At the same time, it's so abstract as to be almost impossible to explicitly outline, so Coscarelli doesn't even try. There's no mention of Jody at the house or a prolonged period of recuperation for Mike - instead, she makes Mike's recovery as inexplicable a phenomenon for him as it is for the reader: "He had no thoughts for the miracle of his survival." Rather than an oversight however, it feels like another chance for Phantasm viewers to knowingly nod as they take in the obligingly sparse information Coscarelli provides.
Rather than unravel cabalistic moments like this, Coscarelli relies on simple character study to build the strong connection between Mike and Jody. At the beginning of the film, Jody off-handedly mentions how Mike follows him everywhere he goes for fear that Jody is planning to abandon him; the viewer is probably too distracted by trying to make sense of all the hooded midgets and hand-snatching boxes to pay much attention to it, but the novelization puts Mike's concern at the center of everything that happens. Coscarelli sympathetically likens Michael seeking out Jody to "clinging to a lifeline in an angry sea," the frustration of any younger sibling chasing after a rebellious big brother but also a deceptively accurate analogy for what Mike's subconsciously worried about. Coscarelli takes Mike screaming at Jody not to leave him locked in his room before venturing out to Morningside alone - "You're never comin' back you goddamn bastard!" - and links the improvised line's use of "bastard" to an internalization exclusive to the prologue of the novelization: "Jody, you bastard...how...how could you leave me?" as Mike remembers the last time he saw Jody before the narrative's big reality-bending shocker - the older brother's tragic death. Coscarelli understands that Michael's struggle to keep Jody from leaving him is in fact his attempt to keep Jody alive, and she haunts him from the beginning of the novelization with the ambiguous words "I'll be right back," which are ultimately revealed to be the last thing Jody will ever say to his brother as he leaves to set up the trap for The Tall Man at the mine. Viewers who've already been jarred by the sudden spiral of total victory to tragic defeat at the end of the film can now appreciate that, rather than an abrupt twist, Jody's death - the impetus for Jody's bravery can even be cheekily applied to the movie's famous tagline: "If it doesn't scare you, you're already dead" - and Mike's futile attempts to avert it have been what the story is all about.
I can't help but point out that the novelization's focus on that natural protective instinct, as well as the tragedy of being inevitably powerless to save a loved one, feels inherently maternal. In the movie only the father, whose pilfered casket is withdrawn from the walls of the mortuary, is mentioned in any significant way; in the book, we learn that Mike's memorable blanket (presumably pee-stained from the nightmare of being dragged into the grave by The Tall Man's minions) was crocheted for him by his mother. Mike didn't start using it until after her death and finds it comforting, making it yet another powerful earthbound object. (Speaking of which, the silver crucifix that seems to hold special significance for Mike turns out to have been a gift, not from his mother but his flighty aunt - you know, Patso's mom? - who isn't even mentioned in the movie.) The spiritual presence of the mother is imbued throughout the text - it's even applied to the deadly sphere:
"(Mike) was looking at death, and it was in the shape of a silver ball, much like the ones his mother used to hang on the Christmas tree."*****
It stands to reason that Coscarelli's mom would equate Jody's parental-brotherly guardianship of Mike with motherhood, the parents' death already informing Mike's struggle not to lose Jody (the author raised two kids herself). Coscarelli uses the song written and performed in the movie by Bill "Jody" Thornbury as the book's epigraph and mentions a song Jody wrote for Mike on his seventh birthday called "Little and Big," perhaps in lieu of a lullaby from mom. If a cheap roll in the cemetery grass is the empty act that leads to a messy death, genuine connection to family is part of the earthly bond that keeps the heroes alive and at their natural height.
This focus on the brothers is a bit at the expense of Reggie as a character, although it says a lot for Reggie Bannister's presence in the movie that the novelization's most notable flaw is failing to make the reader care that much about Reggie. You can practically picture Coscarelli throwing up her arms in resignation, not bothering to provide the iconic ice cream vendor with a backstory or fill in the holes of Reggie's experience from the film, such as his off-screen adventures at Morningside before meeting up with Mike and Jody (also untouched is the deleted scene where Mike mistakes something nasty in a coffin for a trapped Reggie). These are things I would have enjoyed learning from the novelization, although they would have detracted from that great moment when darkness falls in the "transport room," the lights come up and Reggie is alone, like a background player's nightmare of being left on an empty stage without knowing any lines. Reggie looks like he's wondering what he should be doing, suddenly being thrust into spotlight; of course, the full implications of him coming into the foreground won't be apparent until the next three movies.
And as much as I'd love for fan interest to generate novelizations of the Phantasm sequels, I think the only person for that job would have been Kate Coscarelli. The conflicting realities and unrealities of the films is a near-impossible juggling act - the logic of the Phantasm world is that a character gets stuck praying that a severed finger in a box will still be wiggling around; otherwise how can he explain why he's tooling around town with a severed finger in a box? The only way to grasp the irrational is to prove its impossibility to someone else. And Coscarelli, like her son, finds a way to make that baffling illogic somehow logical. How do you explain that?
~ 2013 ~
I like to point out books that actually appear in the movie in these novelization reviews, just in case The Deadly Percheron has anything to do with the novelized Mona Lisa. I couldn't find a good place to mention the Ballatine paperback of My Name is Legion by Roger Zelazny left open teepee-style on Mike's desk in the movie, which Coscarelli goes out of her way to mention Mike reading in the novelization.
On the director's commentary, Don Coscarelli states there's no deep meaning to having the book on Mike's desk, but I actually think the final third of the collection, the Hugo-winning novella "Home is the Hangman," would make a pretty good Don Coscarelli movie. Zelazny himself is fairly unrepresented on screen other than Damnation Alley (unless you're including Argo), and his Frankenstein-as-artificial intelligence scenario fits into the kind of absurd adventure the heroes of a Coscarelli film are forced into.