Long Beach, California native Reggie Bannister is best known as the ice cream man extraordinaire in the Phantasm movies. After serving in the Vietnam War, he met Don Coscarelli, who gave him his first acting gig in Coscarelli’s directorial debut, Jim, The World’s Greatest. Bannister went on to work with Coscarelli in their next pre-Phantasm film, Kenny And Company before cameras rolled on what would become one of the most memorable and best low-budget horror films of all time, Phantasm, where Bannister played (fittingly enough) Reg, the guitar-playing ice cream man.
Survival Quest followed, as did the three other Phantasm sequels. Bannister, a constant fan favourite at horror conventions, has continued his acting in not only television, but other movies as Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation, Wishmaster, and The Demolitionist, as well as forming his own production company. Not one to stay in one avenue of expression, Bannister and his band, Reggie B & the Jizz Wailin’ Ya Doggie recorded their debut CD Fools Paradise and continue to perform and record while October Guitars will be creating a signature guitar for him.
Bannister’s latest venture is Bubba Ho-Tep, based on the book by Joe Lansdale and also starring Ossie Davis and Bruce Campbell. Coscarelli wrote the screenplay and directed the picture. The movie should be out by autumn 2002.
What are some of the changes that you have noticed in independent pictures over the years?
Special effects – across the board with the development of technology and artistic techniques; it started, at first, with the special latex for special effects make-up and now we have computer graphics. It is absolutely amazing stuff.
The down side to the special effects craze – is the story gets lost, good acting gets lost, good concepts get lost to special effects.
Phantasm III had more humour than the others; do you think that distracted from the horror aspect in the series it was originally based on or not?
Some people thought that it distracted, some loved the humour. My character Reg – is really a humourless character.
He’s a musician who has travelled around the world and played guitar with these bands, got tired of it and wanted to settle down in his own little hometown. What does he do? Open an ice cream parlour. He invents his own venue so he can sit there and play guitar and sell ice cream to the kids in an ice cream truck.
By the second film he’s thrown into this chaotic nightmare, he’s chasing after a Phantasm, characters in a reality that you aren’t even sure they exist. When he presents his natural character to these situations, it can be pretty funny at times. It is only funny when it happens to a character that doesn’t think it is humorous or doesn’t know it is humorous.
If you go back through comedy and you see Harold Lloyd who was hanging from a clock tower. Charlie Chaplin getting caught in the gears of a modern mechanised society. You never see those characters understand what they are going through is funny half of it was tragic. They were putting their lives and bodies on the line for a laugh.
It was only natural, in the third picture; Reg was sold on the idea of trying to vanquish this evil force in the world. Trying to be the soldier, trying to be the heavy-duty warrior type. When in fact he is a musician. There are some people who hate Phantasm III because it was humorous, but they still like my character. But I talked to other people who loved Phantasm III and thought it was their favourite film in the series. It evens out.
What motivated you to take the role in Phantasm in the first place?
Money (laughs) – I’m just kidding. I’m a very creative person and I love to create. Basically we didn’t even discuss money and I really never saw any money until the end of the filming when the picture was picked up. To tell the truth, we all did the movie on spec.
I love to act, I love to play music – that is why I did it then and that is why I still do it now. I still throw myself out there to be a part of low budget or almost no-budget movies – but my one rule is it has to be a Screen Actors Guild film.
You were in Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation, which also starred Maud Adams and Clint Howard (Ron Howard’s brother). What was it like being in another horror franchise?
Working on Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation was a lot of fun. The title for that movie has to the longest title in the history of film (laughs). Brian Yuzna (the director) sent me the script and I was supposed to play the part of an editor of a newspaper called ‘The Public Eye’. My character was named Eli, he was a nervous habit guy with a lot of high energy. He smoked constantly. I had a problem with that because I didn’t smoke at the time. I have smoked off and on in my life, but I hadn’t smoked at that time for about four years. I thought that might be problematic for me having to smoke.
I tried to talk to Brian about this the first day of shooting. I said, “Brian, can I talk to you about my character.”
He said, “Yeah, yeah, sure.”
I said, “Eli is firing up one cigarette after another. How about this – what if it was sunflower seeds. I keep eating sunflower seeds and stick them inside my mouth and spit the shells out everywhere, people could be grossed out. It could be a really funny bit.”
Brian listened, pulled down on his chin and said, “No Reg, he’s a smoker.”
I said to the assistant director, “Well go get me a couple packs of Marlboro’s.” I was just hours away from shooting. Do you know what it’s like to smoke when you haven’t smoked? You almost pass out; it makes you so high.
The very first scene of that film, I got through my lines, I didn’t know who the hell I was, or who my character was. And when I watch it back, and know where my head was – during those opening lines – I have to laugh.
Is Phantasm IV: The Oblivion the end of the series? Or is there going to be a sequel?
There is a script written (called ‘Phantasm’s End’) by Roger Avary who has written Pulp Fiction and Killing Zoe. He’s worked with Spelling Entertainment over the years; he’s working with Lion’s Gate on something right now.
Before Don [Coscarelli] got into filming Bubba Ho-Tep last year – he was really pushing to get ‘Phantasm 5’ funded. He had to pull away from that because he really wanted to do Bubba Ho-Tep.
So it’s possible, you could see something at the end of this year heating up for Phantasm 5. We normally start shooting Phantasm movies in the dead of winter. I don’t know why that is, except maybe some forces in the universe want to see us freeze our asses off (laughs).
The ending to the first Phantasm movie would have been unheard of in a major production. Do you think the smaller budget allowed you greater artistic control?
Absolutely. That is the joy of independent film. There are a lot of problems with independent films, mostly you don’t have the money and you really have to restrain yourself. You have to figure out how to get by without having any money and look like you’re putting money on the screen.
Talking about special effects, I wish you could have seen us trying to put together some of the special effects for the original Phantasm. We still stand beside a camera, with certain scenes with the sphere – the ball flying. In Phantasm III, I stood next to the camera in the mausoleum and we took turns throwing the sphere down the hallway – away from the camera – so we could reverse the direction of the sphere coming into the camera. We took turns so we could get the height right for the lens. A long throw so you could see it coming from down the hall. We’ve done some wacky things to get the effects; it has worked well for us.
What are the pros and cons of doing a direct-to-video movie?
There’s a whole step in the process of marketing a movie to become successful that you lose going direct-to-video. If you could get a theatrical, or limited theatrical release you would be more successful.
With limited release theatrical, you’re counting on your movie being so good in a few little theatres around the country that people will talk about it. They tell other people to go see it. Then you get more screens. There are films that have grown exponentially from limited release into 1,200 screens, 2,000 screens.
You have a higher level of marketing awareness to the consumer. That means you see ads on TV, your movie gets criticised (laughs) or reviewed in newspapers across the country.
You start to gain some marketability. So when this film does leave the theatres – then you can ship all kinds of video and DVD units. You’ll already have that high level of marketability for the video stores for rentals. And when it goes on to cable stations, and people look in their TV Guide and say, “Boy, I wanted to see that film. I didn’t see it when it was in the theatre.”
Then it goes into general TV release, you might have the network lease the film. It all starts with a theatrical release.
The cons – you have a film that goes direct-to-video, it goes on video shelves unnoticed. It cuts so much out of the process. Who is going to know it is out there to rent it, or to buy it? Or even to notice it exists? If you go to theatrical release, you have a world of marketing in front of you. That means a lot of money. That can mean a franchise started, that could mean doing a sequel to that film. But if you go direct-to-video you just show up on video shelves around the country.
Did Phantasm II suffer or benefit from the replacement of A. Michael Baldwin with James Le Gros?
There was some controversy about that. It is always difficult when you see an original film and you fall in love with it and the characters. Michael was much beloved – obviously – that is why his character has been so much a part of the series throughout [Baldwin was in the original, Phantasm III: Lord Of The Dead, Phantasm IV: The Oblivion]. When Phantasm II came out, there was a controversy among the hardcore fans about the character of Michael and James Le Gros.
Having said that, James LeGros did a terrific job. I really enjoyed working with James on that film. We had a lot of fun. He’s a really great guy and a fine actor. He went on to do Drugstore Cowboy, and Singles, he just starred in a movie that is based on Macbeth – with Christopher Walken in it – it’s a wonderful film, but I can’t recall the name of it offhand. [It’s Scotland, PA(2001) -Ed]
I can’t tell you how many people come up and tell me, “My favourite film was Phantasm II.” What happened with Phantasm II, was a lot of people who hadn’t seen the first one, saw Phantasm II. It broke at a time, 1988, when the first film was almost ten years old. There was a whole new generation of people who enjoyed horror films that never saw Phantasm. So when they saw Phantasm II – it was there initial experience, they have no idea that Michael had been swapped out. They actually had to go back, to see the first one, to find that character was replaced with another actor.
Even the hardcore fans, that went: “I hate Phantasm II because they don’t have Michael in it,” have come around and done a 360. Regardless, it is a great film. I have to agree, I think Phantasm II busted out and opened that world of Phantasm in a way that had to be done. I think it is a remarkable film for both its special effects and more linear storyline that carries the plot so far that it led to Phantasm III and IV.
Any last words?
The fact that I’m sitting here and talking to you, and know that the readers of VideoVista want to hear my opinions about horror films and filmmaking is extremely gratifying. I really appreciate everybody’s support of my particular job – that what it is really, I’m an actor, that is my job. To have people appreciate your work is awesome to me.
I want to let everyone know, who has read this particular interview, that I just love and appreciate them for supporting me, and my work.
I’ve been involved in some productions that didn’t have a lot of money, had an incredible amount of integrity and wanted really to give everyone the best of conceptual storylines and the best in visuals and acting performances. People like Don Coscarelli (the director, writer, producer and cinematographer of Phantasm, writer and director of II, III and IV), Brian Yuzna (the director of Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation), and Bob Kurtzman (Wishmaster, The Demolitionist) – they are terrific people and want to do the best for the fans out there.
Thank you, thank you – that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.