If cult movies were treated the way some religious cults are, Don Coscarelli probably wouldn’t have to pay another dime in taxes for the rest of his life. Coscarelli’s not the most prolific of filmmakers, with only ten features under his belt in a nearly four-decade career. Almost half of them, though, have acquired, if not mainstream box-office success, a fervently devoted fan base. The 1979 horror flick “Phantasm” introduced Angus Scrimm as the memorable villain The Tall Man, while 1982’s “The Beastmaster” featured a bare-chested Marc Singer, and a briefly bare-chested Tanya Roberts, and was viewed by millions during its frequent airings in the early years of HBO (Hey! “Beastmaster”‘s On!).
With the “Phantasm” franchise exhausted following three sequels, Coscarelli seemed fated to be a minor footnote in cinema history. But after the slow-burning success of 2002’s “Bubba Ho-Tep,” it was clear he’d at least be a major footnote. Cult acting icon and Oregon resident Bruce Campbell (post-“Evil Dead,” pre-“Burn Notice”) stars as none other than Elvis Presley, or at least a Memphis nursing home resident who calls himself that, who goes up against a reanimated Egyptian mummy. Despite the merest whisper of a theatrical release, it’s become a home video and revival screening standard.
Coscarelli’s new film, “John Dies at the End,” seems destined to garner similar loyalty. In convoluted fashion, it follows a pair of laid-back paranormal investigators on the trail of a bizarre drug (known as “soy sauce”) which grants its users omnipotent, dimension-spanning powers, at the cost, perhaps, of their humanity. In other words, it’s a trippy romp through psychedelic physics and B-movie monsterdom, as related by one of the pals to a skeptical reporter played by former Oscar nominee (“Cinderella Man”) and president portrayer (“John Adams”) Paul Giamatti.
The Oregonian recently spoke by phone, first with Coscarelli and later with Giamatti, about “John Dies at the End,” which opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre. (Author’s note: It had not yet been announced that Giamatti was likely to play the supervillain The Rhino in the next Spider-Man movie, which is why it didn’t come up.)
Q. Before I start asking about “Bubba Ho-Tep,” let me ask this: Is it frustrating to be promoting this film and have people ask just as many questions about “Bubba Ho-Tep” or “Phantasm” as about the thing you’re actually here to discuss?
Don Coscarelli: I love those previous films, and I love the people I made them with, so anytime anybody wants to talk about them, I’m excited. There is this weird thing, though, where every time I make another movie everybody wants to talk about the previous movie. When I was making “Bubba Ho-Tep,” everybody wanted to talk “Phantasm,” and now I’m making this movie, they want to talk about “Bubba Ho-Tep.”
Q. Let’s talk about “John,” then. It’s adapted from a novel by David Wong, and I wondered what drew you to the book.
DC. I liked the author’s sensibility. He’s a young guy, a first-time writer, and I liked his depiction of the relationship between these young guys. I thought that he captured a certain apathy. And then, of course, there’s just so much creativity throughout, in terms of talking dogs, a monster made out of freezer meat, a drug from another dimension that chooses you…
Q. Was the memorable visual imagery in the film taken pretty straight from the book or did you work in some inspirations of your own?
DC. I’ll be honest, I’m always trying to sneak little things of my own in, but all the things we’ve talked about were right there. It’s a beautifully written book in so many ways.
Q. There are a lot of quasi-scientific, philosophical stuff in there—things can be real and not real at the same time, for instance. And this notion of quantum predictability, the idea that once you can perceive the position of all the subatomic particles in the universe, the past and the future become a deterministic, predictable thing. It’s sounds like jacket copy for a Brian Greene cosmology book–
DC. I’m enjoying listening to you describe it there. You’re encapsulating what I love about this project. I’ve read those Brian Greene books–I don’t understand them, but I love to read about the membrane dimensions and string theory and all that stuff, and when I can get something that does integrate that with morphing doorknobs, that’s right up my alley.
Q. You went with practical, on-set special effects rather than digital ones for the most part. How much of that was a budgetary decision and how much was an aesthetic decision?
DC. They’re all really just tools, and you have to figure out how each one’s going to work. I think we’re finding nowadays that digital effects are getting a lot less expensive, and sometimes the prosthetics can cost more. Robert Kurtzman created the meat monster and a lot of the prosthetic effects. I’ve known him since way back. He worked on some of the “Phantasm” movies, and he also created the “Bubba Ho-Tep” mummy monster. So he was able to give us so much value for not so much money. But we did use some digital effects on this one, and sometimes they work best when you can use a prosthetic and then do an enhancement.
Q: How did a respectable star like you get mixed up in this crazy film?
Paul Giamatti: I got to know Don Coscarelli through a mutual friend and I was a big fan of his movies, from the “Phantasm” movies to, particularly, “Bubba Ho-Tep.” I got to meet Don and we got friendly, and he had a sequel to that which he was interested in me playing a part in. The movie got close to being made, and then it fell apart. He had this other script that he had based on this novel, which I knew nothing about. He seemed really confident he could make it easily, and I wanted to see if he could really do that. So I offered him any help I could give him, and any part he wanted me to play.
Q. Who were you going to play in that sequel, “Bubba Nosferatu?”
PG: I was going to play Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager. I think we’re talking about trying to get it going again, you know. If people enjoy this movie, maybe they’ll be able to pony up the money for that one.
Q. In “John Dies at the End,” you spend a good portion of your screen time sitting in a diner chatting. Did you feel like you were missing out on all of the bizarre antics taking place in the rest of the film?
PG: Yes, a little bit! I don’t get to blow up or anything like that. It was fine, really. I was playing the one part that it made sense for me to play. And I like the weird place that character goes. I like the funny twist, I suppose you would call it, that happens for that character.
Q. In those scenes you did spend sitting in the diner booth, you were opposite a relatively novice actor. Was there an adjustment period for either of you?
PG: I would never have known that that guy hadn’t made forty movies. If you watch the movie, there’s no difference in our levels of ability. He’s as good, if not better, an actor than I am.
FROM THE OREGONIAN