London Film Festival: Two Evenings With Don Coscarelli

Don Coscarelli brought his trippy new picture John Dies At The End to the 56th London Film Festival recently. Sean Kitching went to see it twice

Don Coscarelli, the cult writer-director behind Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep and The Beastmaster, is in London for the UK premiere of his new film John Dies at the End. A ‘tall man’ in his own right, albeit friendlier and of more sanguine complexion than the character portrayed by Angus Scrimm in the Phantasm movies, Coscarelli begins by saying how happy he is to be in England and offers tribute to the horror icons of his childhood: "I’m talking about Hammer, I’m talking about Quatermass…, those Children of the Damned, and probably the greatest killer plant movie ever made, The Day of the Triffids."

Featuring Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown and Doug Jones among a bevy of new faces, Coscarelli’s adaptation of the novel by editor Jason Pargin is the perfect pairing of cult author with cult director. Pargin’s novel, written under the pseudonym David Wong (who is also one of the main protagonists) deals with the inter-dimensional effects of a street drug known as ‘soy sauce’ and reads like a combination of Philip K Dick and HP Lovecraft, with two slackers as the main characters. Coscarelli was in typically playful mood when describing how the project came about as a result of a recommendation from

"One day this robot sent me an email and it said if you liked that last zombie picture you will love John Dies at the End. I read the tagline and it was perfectly suited to me. People tell me it’s some sort of an algorithm, you know in the ether out there that figured out that I would like the book, but there is an entity in the story called Korrok, and I wonder if maybe somehow he’s crossed dimensions so he can create this movie so he can appear on a big screen…"

It’s the kind of movie that perhaps isn’t for everyone, but is a must-see experience for fans of the book and anyone who loves non-linear sci-fi or horror with lashings of humour and psychedelic drug references. Having become aware of both the book and the trailer at the start of the year, it’s been a long wait until the film hit the UK, so I’ve been spending some of that time looking back on Coscarelli’s career.

Born in 1954 and growing up in Southern California, Coscarelli’s initial interest in photography led to teenage experiments with a super 8 camera. Early work on what he describes as ‘epics’ of various genres with friends soon turned into his first serious attempt at a full-length feature, Jim, the World’s Greatest. Aged 19, Coscarelli became the youngest filmmaker to ever sell a script to a major studio when Universal Pictures bought Jim… in 1975. He was deemed worthy of development in the eyes of the studio, along with another young talent they were handling at the time, Steven Spielberg.

Coscarelli rejected the offer in favour of finding his own path and when a similarly lacklustre box office response greeted his next feature, Kenny and Company (1976), he decided that perhaps success in the horror genre might be easier to come by. 1979’s Phantasm was not only a critical and box office hit worldwide but has become one of the most iconic horror films of all time, with Angus Scrimm’s terrifying Tall Man and the killer spheres helping secure that status. Coscarelli had reasoned that if he was going to try and make a horror flick, he wanted to make it truly scary. Taking the philosophical point of view that the ultimate question that humans concern themselves with is the mystery of what happens when they die – and portraying the way in which US society mediates the process of death with seemingly arcane rituals, such as the embalming process – he hit upon a hugely original and surreal script which left its imprint on many a young mind.

A large part of Phantasm‘s longevity is down to the fact that it refuses to yield to any single attempt at explanation. The red planet/dimension that Mike and Reggie are transported to when they step in between those silver tuning forks is just as bizarre and inexplicably outside of rational thought the second or third time you come face to face with it. Images of silver spheres smoothly traversing mausoleum corridors, reflecting back parallel lines of marble that seem to stretch into infinity, are similarly unforgettable. The film also had its share of great lines, including the brilliant tagline: ‘If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!’ And my personal favourite, delivered off-the-cuff by an incredulous Tall Man: "You think when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!"

Although the film is too bizarre to have influenced as many other horror movies as the more straightforward likes of John Carpenter’s Halloween, it’s hard to imagine A Nightmare on Elm Street existing without Phantasm‘s similarly dream-like precedent. Freddy Krueger and The Tall Man might seem cut from a different cloth but they both stalk the same space between dreaming and waking, and with both of them it is ‘never over’. Phantasm is also notable as one of the very few old-school horror classics never to get remade. While there has been interest from other directors in the past, Coscarelli claims he would only consider it if the right director came forward, and at one time suggested that Takashi Miike might be a good choice. When I asked Coscarelli to comment further on rumours that Phantasm 5 might be in the works, he said:

"Going around with John Dies At The End it’s really stunning to me how this question always pops up. The cast are all in really great shape. So when I finish up the publicity on this, I’m going to take a hard look, meet with those guys and see if there isn’t something we can put together."

2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, starring horror legend Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis, alongside the actor/director and social activist Ossie Davies as a fellow nursing home resident who believes himself to be John F Kennedy, was a big hit on the festival circuit. Based on the story by Texan author, Joe R Lansdale, the film’s outrageous premise frames a genuinely touching buddy story as the two misfits do battle with an Egyptian mummy intent on feeding on the life forces of the elderly residents. The production’s low-budget belies the richness of its dialogue and Campbell is hilarious yet utterly convincing as the senescent King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Coscarelli began work on a prequel, provisionally titled Bubba Nosferatu, but Campbell bailed after two years, leaving the project up in the air. Serendipity won out, however, when this unfortunate turn of events led to the gestation of Coscarelli’s current project: "I had this plan where we could continue the saga of Elvis and really dig into something that a lot of Elvis fans have a burning desire to find out, [namely] how his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, could have such a svengali-like control over the King. So, in constructing a screenplay to tell that story, [I had to consider] how the Colonel could have such control… It had to rely on some level of vampirism. Paul Giamatti would play Colonel Parker. Awesome. But Bruce changed his mind and it sort of fell apart, but then the robot sent me the email and I immediately thought that this character was perfect for Paul."

Giamatti’s involvement must also have helped to some degree with raising funds for the movie although even then, it wasn’t a project any studio was willing to take on directly. Coscarelli describes a meeting with an executive who clearly wanted to make a movie with Giamatti and who initially appeared enthusiastic about John Dies At The End.

"I asked Paul to submit the script to this person. A couple of days later she gave us this three-page critique that she had written. I’m reading it and thinking, Wow, this person really gets it. She likes the talking dog, she loves the bratwurst cell phone, you know wow, she’s going to fund it… And I get down to the last paragraph and it goes: ‘And this is exactly why our studio could never fund your film. We would have to put it through a development process so it could play to a wide audience, and we would be forced to remove everything in the project that you love.’"

Playing to packed houses at the BFI Southbank and Hackney Picturehouse for the two nights of its London Film Festival run, John Dies At The End for the most part remains utterly faithful to the book and manages to pose some elements of genuine otherness alongside its funnier moments. The young actors, especially Chase Williamson as David Wong, are great and their faces fit perfectly. Clancy Brown might not be in the movie very much but he’s fantastic as Marconi and has one of the best lines towards the end.

Glynn Turman, of The Wire, Gremlins and Super 8, plays a great genre detective, all gristle and determination in the face of something he clearly doesn’t want to understand. His line about hell being "all around us like country radio is", but we can only see/hear it if we tune in, is another gem. Giamatti is cool and represents a much-needed rational anchor as the disbelieving reporter.

The introduction is dynamite, posing a Zen koan-like riddle involving the practicalities of beheading the undead, a modern restatement of Theseus’ paradox which promises to reveal the ultimate secret of the universe. Does the axe that has had all its component parts replaced fundamentally remain the same axe? From there on in the movie’s pace hardly lets up and my only slight reservation is that, like another of my favourites from this year – The Cabin in the Woods – it’s all over too soon. When I asked him how he decided which material to leave in and which to leave out, Coscarelli said that he had learned that "the human ass has a shelf life" in terms of sitting through a longer movie. Personally I would have gladly sat through a lot more.

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