Don Coscarelli fans who’ve been waiting for his long-anticipated follow-up to Bubba Ho-tep have reason to get excited. The director’s adaptation of David Wong’s comedic horror novel John Dies at the End is finally seeing release (December 27th on VOD) after playing at a string of this year’s indie festivals, and it’s as wonderfully different from Bubba as Bubba was from Coscarelli’s breakthrough Phantasm saga.
As twisted as anything penned by William S. Burroughs or Philip K. Dick, John Dies pairs veteran actor Paul Giamatti with newcomers Rob Mays and Chase Williamson, in the tale of two paranormal adventurers who stumble upon a drug known as… Soy Sauce? It all makes sense on screen, or rather it doesn’t make sense, but – like the best head trips – in a good way. I sat down with Coscarelli last weekend to discuss John Dies at the End, along with his long-awaited Phantasm V, the upcoming Phantasm II Blu-ray, and lots more. Check out our chat inside.
Shock Till You Drop: Has there been any new talk of releasing Phantasm on Blu-ray?
Don Coscarelli: No talk yet. The problem is the demise of the DVD business. Five to eight years ago it was great. All you’d have to do is come up with an idea. “I think we should put out this,” and they’d be all over it. Now they have to do business projections, because the unit sales just aren’t what they were.
Shock: Yet Phantasm II is on its way to Blu-ray.
Coscarelli: That is true. There’s a company licensing it from Universal. They’re putting a Blu-ray out, so that’s pretty exciting. It’s such a revelation really, because you’re used to seeing it in one medium. Then one day it pops up and you watch it. I remember back in the day when I was watching Phantasm again and again on VHS, and then one day I got to see it on a DVD and it was just so stunningly different. I can’t imagine what the difference to Blu-ray is gonna be.
Shock: Are there any special features we can look forward to? Phantasm II’s DVD release was fairly lean.
Coscarelli: Yeah, it was bare bones. I do know they’re planning a lot of stuff. I know that they’ve had new interviews with Angus and Reggie.
Shock: Have you done a commentary yet?
Coscarelli: I haven’t as yet. It’s still evolving. So I don’t know whether there’s going to be a new commentary or not. But there is a commentary that’s never been published. I think it was for another version of it somewhere.
Shock: Are there deleted scenes out there we might see?
Coscarelli: There are, so the question is which ones. I don’t know what their plans are yet. But I’m sure within another month we’ll know more.
Shock: John Dies at the End functions as a kind of college-dorm/midnight-movie, a little bit in the way that Repo Man did. Was that film an influence?
Coscarelli: Oh, yeah… I think you gotta give credit to the novelist David Wong, what I like about him is he’s a young writer who has his finger on the pulse of the current youth generation, which as you get a little older is hard to tap the way I maybe used to be able to. That’s what I like about him. There are certain responses that are in the book, that are in the movie, where characters respond differently than I ever would have. They’re much more deadpan , much more apathetic. But I like it so I think it could relay. I think it’s already getting that kind of vibe. Whether by intention or not, we may have created the next great drug movie – that everyone can embrace, because it’s not a real drug.
Shock: The film also serves as a weird film noir, with great character actors like Angus Scrimm and Doug Jones anchoring, in the noir tradition, the journey the protagonists take.
Coscarelli: Yeah, it’s great; and they provide interesting insights. There are such strange characters from each of them. For me it was a delight just to be able to essentially go after actors who I’ve been watching for years and have always wanted to include in something. It’s great when you have a movie where there are four or five roles you can fill and say, “Let’s see who’s my favorite cult actor who’s sort of like this…” Plus all of them are great people, easy to work with, real veterans, and so capable. We also can’t discount the fact that the one who no one will recognize is Daniel Roebuck, who has a lengthy career as a character actor in a million things, and he essentially took a hit for the team and agreed to play his character masked throughout. So no one gets to see his face. Actors want to be seen, and when you put them behind a mask you can’t see them. So he volunteered to take that role, and I’ll be in his eternal debt for that.
Shock: John Dies at the End is like nothing you’ve done before in that you’re adapting a novel as complex in its way as Naked Lunch.
Coscarelli: It was a challenge for me and something different to tackle, but there’s no question that it was ongoing from the moment I committed to go forward on it to the moment I finished the cuts after a couple of film festivals. I was always trying to adapt this beast into a format that people can enjoy.
I said this before publically, and I think it’s true, that the human ass has a shelf life for how long it can sit in a chair in a theater. For a movie of this tone it probably is about a hundred and twenty minutes. Yet from a novel perspective, there are so many epic monologues that these characters go into that are magnificent. I shot a number of them and had to leave some behind. It was real difficult. That was a battle I was always fighting from the minute I started – “How is this going to translate? It looks great reading it…” There was a lot of reconstruction on the first ten minutes of the movie, and then the last act was always a challenge too.
Shock: What might the status be of Phantasm V?
Coscarelli: My eyes are open and I’m listening. I had this opportunity in the ‘90s, with my good friend Roger Avary, who had just won the Academy Award with Quentin for Pulp Fiction. He had this window where he could do anything, and what did he choose to do? He said, “Don, I’m gonna write you an epic Phantasm movie. “ So we had this plan where he would write the script and I would film it, and we’d get twenty-five million dollars and make this immense thing. And it was a great, great concept project from a beautiful script, but we could never get the funding together. Then I decided, “The fans are still after me. I left everyone handing literally with Phantasm III, so I’m gonna do an inexpensive wrap-up and use some of the original footage from Phantasm I.” I did that, and I think that the fans really appreciated it a lot. Anyone who wasn’t a Phantasm fan didn’t get the movie at all, but that was okay. That was where Phantasm IV ended. At the end of the century I had made that movie and I felt it was a pretty complete deal.
But I’ll tell you, ever since I finished this movie and started doing a little publicity on it and talked to the fans and got out in public a little more, they’re not asking, “Where’s the Phantasm remake?” They’re asking, “When are you going to make Phantasm V with the original actors?” I’m getting the picture. I see that there’s a need that needs to be filled. [Laughs.] So I just need to figure out a way in this current, very difficult independent film climate, how something like that would manifest. Not to be cynical, but these financiers and studio types, the higher the Roman numeral gets, the less interest they’ve got. Especially when you’re not talking about bringing in hip young actors who are fresh off the CW network. The long and short of it is I hear where people are coming from and I’m trying to figure out a way to do something.
Shock: Could the Bubba Ho-tep sequel, Bubba Nosferatu, also still happen?
Coscarelli: Here’s the thing… I am so blessed twice in my life to make movies – Phantasm would be one and Bubba would be the other – that would be so embraced by the fan community. That is just awesome. I’ve never forsaken the fans trust in me on Phantasm. In a weird way, I’m so far away from when I made it, I’m a fan of the Phantasm movies as the fans are! Now to see it with Bubba, nine years later, where there’s still so much interest in seeing more of that, I would love to service that somehow. I have this wonderful screenplay that I wrote at the time, and Paul Giamatti was on board and I thought Bruce was on board, but it just didn’t work out. He changed directions and didn’t want to proceed with the sequel. We experimented with some other ideas. A great idea was Ron Perlman, a fantastic actor who’s just great on Sons of Anarchy. But the financing ultimately fell apart. But the thing is it’s not like it goes away. It just keeps growing. There could be more stories with Elvis. Let’s face it, Elvis is eternal. So he’ll always be there.
Shock: Like a classic horror icon!
Coscarelli: He’s bigger than everyone! There could be so many great adventures with him, both young and old.
Shock: The thought I had was “If Elvis is this cool fighting monsters as an old man, how cool must he have been fighting them when he was young?”
Coscarelli: There’s some thought about trying to do a one-hundred percent young Elvis movie in the same vein as that. But unfortunately I have nothing really new to announce. I know Paul would love to be involved. The unfortunate part is Paul is a gigantic Bruce Campbell fan and a huge Evil Dead fan, and was really excited to be in a movie with Bruce.
Shock: And Ron once told me he was excited to be in a movie with Paul.
Coscarelli: It’s an interesting thing. But in any case, nothing to report.
Shock: Going back to the idea of a Phantasm remake, do you get hit with fresh pitches every day?
Coscarelli: There’s no question there’s interest in it. And I’m sure that when the Evil Dead remake comes out and makes a bazillion dollars, I’ll have to turn my phone off. But for now, the last couple of months have been quiet. I’m kind of happy with that. Because it’s a hard decision to take that step. Does a remake damage the original? I don’t know… When you’re flipping through the cable channel menu and you see Texas Chainsaw Massacre listed, you click it on, and there’s Jessica Biel.
Shock: It’s frustrating to talk to young people who, when you mention The Wicker Man, respond, “Oh, I love Nicolas Cage!” There’s a point where you almost get angry.
Coscarelli: It’s frightening really. But in any case, no further plans for a remake. That’s not to say I won’t change my mind at some point, but you’d have to get the right circumstances… But who’s gonna replace Angus Scrimm? I don’t know if that person’s been born yet. [Laughs.]
Shock: With the Evil Dead remake, they didn’t even try to replace Bruce.
Coscarelli: Are you sure he doesn’t show up in the last act?
Shock: Have you heard something?
Coscarelli: No. [Laughs.] I’m just fantasizing.