With 'John Dies at the End,' Don Coscarelli is still doing exactly as he damn well pleases
Don Coscarelli never met two genres he didn't want to splice. But if you thought his strangeness could not exceed an ice cream seller fighting a demonic mortician in Phantasm, or Elvis versus a mummy in Bubba Ho-Tep, wait for John Dies at the End. When the director first read David Wong's novel about dimension-hopping slackers, phantom limbs, and meat monsters, his response summed up how his fans feel about his movies. Coscarelli recalls thinking, "'Whoa, this is a major mash-up. Is it a comedy, is it a philosophical mood piece, what is it?' I didn't have an answer, but it was definitely in my wheelhouse."
John Dies is almost the anti-Phantasm. Where Coscarelli's original suburban demon hunters plunged with determination into battle against the sinister Tall Man, the director was drawn to how Wong tapped the "inherent apathy" of the unmotivated David (Chase Williamson) and his sporadically deceased friend John (Rob Mayes). He says, "I thought, wow, it would be fun to depict these characters in the most outrageous circumstances, and see the most outrageous monsters, and have the response of, 'Huh. That's interesting.' Whereas if I were writing it there would be people screaming and running out the door."
When there's no genre map, a mash-up like John Dies can lose audiences, and it takes the right leading man to hold their hand through the crazy. Considering David is in just about every frame, as well as voicing the far-from-omniscient narrator, Coscarelli faced casting hell with young actors who just could not carry the material. He says, "Sometimes, when the wrong guy's reading, you're thinking to yourself, 'I really fucked up here. This movie's going to suck. It's just not going to work.'" The last time he had such a casting leap was for Bubba Ho-Tep, when Bruce Campbell's aging Elvis struggled with bedsores and Egpytian curses. When he cast the Evil Dead star, Coscarelli knew he could act, but still wondered, "Could he play an aging Elvis?" One day, Campbell came over to Coscarelli's house and teased him with a glimpse of how his aging king would shake, rattle, and shake some more. Coscarelli recalls, "I'm the only one there, and I'm thinking, 'He could really be great in this role.'" Re-watching the John Dies casting tapes, he was reminded of why he cast Williamson. Coscarelli says, "He just had a way. He could make the ironic moments work, he could make the comedy work, and he could make the straight-ahead, earnest moments works. So again I'm thinking, yeah, he could really be our guy.'"
Coscarelli is depending on audiences being a lot more interested in all this weirdness than David and John would be. "There's a certain percentage that throw up their hands if it's all not predigested for them," he says. Yet he believes the studios don't give audiences enough credit. "[Audiences are] looking for something to chew over for hours or days after the screening," he says. "There're a lot of people who really want to savor a story. If you don't give them an exact ending or take some risks, they sometimes come up with more interesting interpretations than what I was thinking of originally." That's a risk he's always been willing to take, right back to Phantasm's fever dream logic, but with hindsight, Coscarelli says, "the success of Phantasm was in its mystery."
His trademark weirdness has usually kept Coscarelli clear of the straitlaced studio system, but the trade-off of being an indie filmmaker is a constant crash course in the changing film distribution industry. When Phantasm erupted from the crypt in 1979, it made its money in theatres and then reemerged on VHS. By the time Bubba Ho-Tep crawled out of his sarcophagus, Coscarelli said, "Every theatrical experience was essentially aimed at selling a DVD unit." Now indie producers are, as with John Dies, increasingly going to video-on-demand first and then a limited theatrical run. Coscarelli says, "At first it seems very wrong, that you're going to put it out in this premium VOD window, and then expect people to go see it in the theatres. But I'm told that they're very distinct audiences. The people that buy VOD don't seem to go to theatres, and vice versa."
That's taking some getting used to for Coscarelli. In the Nineties, when some of his "higher Roman numeral Phantasms came out," they were dumped in the direct-to-video sewer. Back then, he says, "A movie that was direct to video was considered an also-ran piece of junk that was not worth the tape it was recorded on." Instead of VOD killing the ardor for John Dies, he says, "Now I'm seeing people saying, 'Wow, that was great, I can't wait to see it in theatres.'"
John Dies at the End opens at the Alamo Slaughter Lane on Feb. 22. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.