Sinister Seven: Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm

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: He bled yellow, commanded silver spheres which could fly through the air and drill into peoples heads, and his agenda was to abduct the dead and turn them into his personal army of zombie dwarves. As a child I made the mistake of watching Phantasm II, and every night thereafter I lay awake in bed as the words “You think that when you die, you go to heaven. You come to US!” echoed through my head as I imagined my eventual demise, and then, no release of an afterlife, but, instead, a swift transfer to some undead oompa-loompa retail chain to lumber after some ice cream truck driver for the rest of my days. The Tall Man was as rich and charismatic a figure as the story itself. He may not be the most well known of the horror icons, but he commands respect with strut of his plat-formed shoes. Almost 40 years later his talent and performance led to the creation of four Phantasm films with fans still begging for a 5th 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?
Angus Scrimm:  In the late 1950’s 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.

What exactly is a liner note?
AS:  A liner  is simply the explanatory matter on the back of an LP jacket or in the compact disc booklet.  A pop liner note is essentially advertising copy which talks about the artist and the music in the most glowing terms to lure the  store customer into purchasing the record on the spot.  A classical music note is lengthier, scholarly, informative and analytical and designed to provide information that will enhance the listening experience.  Of course, nowadays Compact Disc booklets, especially for box sets, often contain reams of  well-researched material for all genres of music.  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?
AS: I got far more of an education from Capitol Records. As a child in the 1930’s Depression Era, I managed to scrounge together a meager collection of used 78’s — 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.

That’s right, you had a violin scene in ‘I Sell the Dead’!
AS: 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 rehearsal’s 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 serioes ‘Tales From Beyond the Pale’ with Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix. How did you get involved with Glass Eye Pix?

AS:  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 Henrickson or me.  Their budget was slim, I was scheduled to do a Chiller convention in New Jersey while Jim was filming, saving Jim 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 Kuhlerman, 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 “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,” “Stakeland,” and the  Ti West threesome of thrillers “The Roost,”  “The House of the Devil”  and “The Innkeepers.”

How do you get into character to play ‘The Tall Man’?
AS:  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 a 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 “Incident on and Off a Mountain Road.”   In the 1970’s/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) from the Phantasm series?
Scrimm:  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 restaged 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.

Do you own any piece of memorabilia from the ‘Phantasm’ series that you’re particularly proud of?
AS:  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?
AS:  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.

Who do you think would win in a fight to the death: Reggie or the Tall Man?
AS: Reggie Bannister?   If it came to grips, all I would have to do is offer Reggie a beer and he’d calm down like a puppy.

Let me rephrase that: The ice cream man, or the super-human mortician?
AS:  The Tall Man is allergic to cold.  All Reggie need do is find a way to bury him beneath a mountain of Rocky Road.    I’d love trying to eat my way out of that situation!

If you could change anything about the horror film industry, what would it be?   
AS:  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?

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