by Don Coscarelli
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
Don Coscarelli, writer-director of cult favorites like Phantasm and The Beastmaster (which enjoyed so much air time in the 1980s that Billy Crystal quipped HBO stands for “Hey, Beastmaster’s on”), is in his sixties now, has been making movies since the early 1970s, and even though his new professional memoir, True Indie, waxes with starry-eyed nostalgia on the good old days of renting cameras for a weekend shoot, boots-on-the-ground marketing tactics, and the excitement of a newborn home video market, there’s precious little whining about the digital era changing all that. In fact, he complains about almost nothing. He’s an energetic storyteller who’s benefited from state-of-the-art marketing and filmmaking techniques as they’ve rolled out over the years (like Kevin Smith, he was an early adapter to using the internet as a platform for engaging with fans), and he’s guardedly excited for the future of his craft (one hesitation: he’s gone from telling independent filmmakers to keep their budgets under $1 million to now saying they oughta keep it under $100k). His optimism makes for a breezy 300-pages of easy conversation that culminates in something like a pep talk.
His exuberance on the page might come as a disappointment to readers who’d like to see a little more bloodletting and scandal. What else are memoirs for? Instead, True Indie is a charming, wholesome, earnest chronicle of a genuine indie career: Coscarelli started off with financial backing from his dad for the first couple features, worked his way up to a stature where he was entrusted with a multimillion-dollar picture (The Beastmaster – which, with a $3 million budget in the early ‘80s, was still pretty modest), and then, after being burned by the notorious Hollywood Money People usurping creative control, he turned back to the indie world for good, militant about doing things his own way.
Coscarelli’s name is a big one in American horror cinema because of his 1979 hit Phantasm, about a young teen named Mike who lives under the care of his brother and contends with the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the cryptic black-suited owner of a funeral home who, as four subsequent sequels have revealed, is an alien from another dimension. The first film is lightning in a bottle: creepy atmosphere, a lean story with a great villain and likeable characters, and it still stands beautifully on its own. The sequels, which began in 1988 and culminated in 2016 with Phantasm: Ravager, have attracted a cult of followers, called “phans,” who respond in rapture to special screenings around the world, to the franchise’s expanding mythology and, perhaps most of all, to the simple charm of it all. They’re fun movies with conspicuously low budgets from which Coscarelli wrings an incredible production value. The franchise has blown up from a modest small-town campfire story to an intergalactic and interdimensional sci-fi horror-comedy opera. Each successive sequel is pushing outsiders a little bit further away and hugging the phans a bit closer.
He’s got other notable entries in a filmography that, surprisingly, sports only thirteen titles, including 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, about a presumed-dead Elvis Presley battling a mummy in a retirement home, and “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” his contribution to Mick Garris’s Showtime series Masters of Horror.
Coscarelli’s memoir is a story of his profession. There’s very little reference to his marriage or to pastimes or the raising of children – which is just as well. He seems to appreciate that the readers are also his viewers and that they’re interested in the movies, not his private life. So the book itself is pure fan service, telling us what was going on behind the scenes, and it becomes clear after the first few brief chapters, with their bemused tone and exclamation points, that this book is written for aspiring filmmakers. Young ones especially.
But so are his movies, after all, because for all of their violence and vulgarity and occasional sexuality, Coscarelli’s horror movies are often cartoonish, self-deprecating, and laced with the silliness that defined so much of his generation’s most iconic horror: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series comes to mind, and some of the unfortunate Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. There was this trend where a franchise would begin with an entry that took itself seriously, oftentimes something that changed the genre, and then it’d drift slowly toward the absurd with every successive installment. We’d start seeing more vibrant neon colors and there’d be corny jokes and random guitar riffs. (Not all ‘80s-born franchises went this route. There are currently eight movies in the Children of the Corn series, each one taking itself more seriously than the last.)
These movies were super violent but also clearly made for kids. Or adolescents, at least. And, to that end, they created a kind of dialogue wherein both parties felt respected. For a thirteen-year-old watching a movie that has the juvenile humor she loves so much and dishes out doses of the sex and violence that are so endearingly taboo at that age, there’s a feeling of being trusted. Any aunt or uncle knows that the way to win a kid over is to sneak them the treat their parents so stridently deny them, and a horror filmmaker in the eyes of a kid is doing just that. The humor says, This movie is for you, and the adult content says, I trust you to be able to process this and enjoy it in a spirit of fun. In a culture now where audiences are encouraged to question the morality of an artist if she should express herself in an unsavory way, and to devote hours of their lives toward the petitioning of whichever entity has the power to censor that artist indefinitely, it’s hard to imagine those movies getting made, much less celebrated.
Coscarelli compounds his decades of influence over young audiences by delivering, with True Indie, a professional memoir that works as a how-to guide. Some of the professional headaches he recounts are likely to sound archaic or quaint when every kid reading this book has an HD camera in her pocket and first-class video-editing software built into her portable, affordable, easy-to-use computer. But the book is about Coscarelli's love for the work. And with passages that recount his near-death experience in a helicopter on the set of Beastmaster, and the alarmingly frequent risk of serious bodily harm in filmmaking (somebody was drowned and narrowly resuscitated on one of his sets), Coscarelli showcases and celebrates the creative spirit, the need to make art, and ennobles the artist who opts for authority over money.
It’s an encouraging book, beautifully so. The first few chapters of origin story will probably bore the uninitiated, but it’s easy to imagine Coscarelli’s memoir changing the life of some young people by leveling with them about the profession. True Indie sounds like the thoughtful encouragement of an uncle who wants his reader to follow her dreams, but to know what she’s getting herself into.
Unless you realize right away that Coscareli has this intention at heart, the book can read like a strangely sanitized memoir at times, straining for optimism. A person does accumulate frustrations in the span of a 40-year career, and it’s a relief when Coscarelli finally dishes a little dirt or settles a score. Particularly about The Beastmaster, his 1981 sword-and-sorcery movie that happened to hit theaters three months after Conan the Barbarian, and was immediately scoffed at and denounced as a rip-off. “How could one ever write, direct, film, edit, and release a film in three months?” he argues. “It’s not physically possible.”
He elaborates down the page, saltier still:
In addition, [The Beastmaster’s] hero is not a hulking, monosyllabic thug but an earnest young man, quite inquisitive and loquacious, who is trying to make sense of his life and do the right thing….The Beastmaster may be a movie with serious flaws, I will cop to that, but it is not a fucking Conan rip-off.
True Indie is a delightful memoir and how-to for aspiring filmmakers, accessible to a younger crowd without being reductive or simplistic. A good gift and easy read for your teen or twentysomething movie buff.
Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.