“John Dies at the End” is Academy Award nominee Paul Giamatti’s first horror movie gig. The screenplay, written by Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm), is based on the comic horror novel by David Wong (aka Cracked editor Jason Pargin). The story centers around a new street drug called “Soy Sauce” that sends its users across time and dimensions. There is one slight problem: some people return from the other world as something not human. The film poses the question: Can two college dropouts from the Midwest save humankind from this silent, otherworldly invasion?
Coscarelli directs this comedy, fantasy, horror flick. The leads are played by newcomers Chase Williamson (Dave) and Rob Mayes (John). Executive producer Giamatti plays reporter Arnie. Expect to see monsters made of raw meat and other equally disgusting things, like penis doorknobs. Coscarelli sci-fi geek fans will be ecstatic. Everyone else? Not so much.
For those not familiar with Coscarelli’s previous works, he has a cult following for his Phantasm I–IV franchise about a boy named Mike, his friends, and their never-ending fight against a grave robber known as the evil Tall Man. Bubba Ho-Tep is about Elvis and JFK who are both alive and in nursing homes. They are fighting for the souls of their fellow residents against an ancient Egyptian mummy.
Yesterday, Examiner Dorri Olds sat down in NYC with Don Coscarelli to discuss his films and the current state of the horror genre.
Dorri Olds: Why this novel?
Don Coscarelli: I got an email from a robot at Amazon and it told me that, based on a novel I’d just read, I would love this novel. And it was right. I felt that in addition to being definitely in my wheel house in terms of having inter-dimensional travel and strange creatures — things that I’d done before, I felt that this writer David Wong had an interesting depiction of these two characters. It felt very contemporary to me, the fact that they could be so apathetic in the face of such strangeness. I liked that. As soon as I got that Amazon email I tracked the author down. He has a website, pointlesswasteoftime, and you really have to give this guy credit. He created a new paradigm in self-publishing. What he did is he started publishing short stories on the Internet. I would’ve loved to work with him but he got the job at Cracked and I’m surprised he was even able to write the sequel while working there. He has to create so much original material every hour on that site. When I first looked at the book I had a plan as to how it might be shoehorned down from the length of 350 pages to 100 pages. I thought that what I would do is take the first very linear section, about a third of the book, and then try to fuse it onto the ending. That seemed like a legitimate way to go to avoid some of the impossible scenes. Later, after we settled the rights I asked him how he would approach it and he just sent me this simple email and what he said was just what I had been thinking.
Did he like the treatment?
Yeah, he liked it a lot. I think one good part about it is the folks who enjoy the movie; they can disappear into that world by reading the book afterwards.
What about the future plans for “John Dies at the End”? Are you thinking of turning it into a TV series for FX?
We were talking about that and I made the point that it might be too out there and edgy for the TV execs. But FX makes “American Horror Story.”
Do you watch that show?
No, but I hear it’s brilliant.
How do you feel about the horror genre? Your film is really out there and different but we’re seeing so many remakes and sequels lately.
I think that the horror genre ebbs and flows. I mean you have periods. I can think back to my veteran days in the mid-90s where I was out trying to pitch a zombie project. They’d say, “This is a zombie picture. We don’t want to do a zombie picture.” I had to go through and take the “z” word out and replace it with “creature” everywhere in the script and resubmit it. Things come and go but it’s a genre that I believe invites invention and creativity. Then somebody will come up with a wonderful and original movie like back in the days of “The Grudge” and “The Ring” series. They were so original but then after about three or four years if you saw another Japanese gal with hair in your face, you know. [Rolls eyes] Yet, some brilliant filmmaker out there making a horror film that within the next year will come out and we don’t know what it is but it will be something great. The first time you’ve ever had a really true scare in a horror movie you don’t forget it. You’ll remember it forever. The trailers for horror movies usually are pretty good even if the movie sucks. You go in hoping it’ll be like that first scare and every once in a while, it is.
Do you have a favorite horror movie?
I’d have to go by eras. I mean there’s “Frankenstein” or “Bride of Frankenstein.” Then I’d have to move into the 50s sci-fi which includes “Invaders from Mars” and the monster phase with “Godzilla.” The 70s would be “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” or “Suspiria.” More recent stuff, “The Eye” by the Pang brothers.
How does “John Dies at the End” fit into the “Phantasm” universe? They seem like they’re related.
Yeah, there’s certainly going to be parallels. We didn’t have any overt drug use in “Phantasm” except maybe behind the camera. [Laughs] Certainly they are parallel universes, similar universes. I just was fascinated with “John Dies” this whole concept of reality and things not being what they appear. That’s something I’ve always found interesting. Maybe it’s an escape from the harsh fact that there is no alternate reality.
Did you take things home from the set? Like the axe?
Part of the agreement with Bob Kurtzman was that he would get all his stuff back. There’s a really cool new announcement. Kurtzman is going to make molds off the meat monster suit and he’s going to be selling high-end meat monsters for use in haunted house attractions.
Have you done anything besides horror?
The problem with this horror game is it’s a slippery slope. Once you’ve had a little success in horror it’s so difficult to get the folks that put up the money to fund other projects. Through the years I’ll finish a horror movie then I’ll go out with two or three other projects that are outside of the genre and try to get them funded. I fail spectacularly and then go back and do something in the horror genre. So, in my later years now, what I’ve been trying to do is stay in the genre but do things that are a little bit different. I think “Bubba Ho-Tep” was the first step there. I don’t know that that movie was really about mummies. It was really more about getting old with some sly commentary on how our culture treats the elderly. The best part about it was that the Phantasm fans accepted it. I was very satisfied with the response to that. In “John Dies at the End” I don’t know that it’s just a horror movie, it’s more of a psychedelic, weirdly comic idea with elements of philosophy in it.
Coming out of that movie it is hard to hold onto anything, which is not the way one tends to want to feel after a movie.
Well, hopefully people will revisit it a second time.
Do you read reviews of your movies or do you avoid them?
Why do you ask? [Laughs] Seriously, though, reviews can sting. Over the years, especially between “Phantasm” and now with this movie, there are people that’ll get it and people that won’t.
Watch a video of Paul Giamatti discussing the horror genre.