On Friday, February 8th, Don Coscarelli came to the Music Box Theatre in Chicago for a double feature of his new film John Dies at the End and his beloved Elvis Presley vs. a mummy movie, Bubba Ho-Tep.
The opening sequence of John Dies at the End contains a philosophical question hidden inside a joke punctuated with a beheading and the killing of an alien slug. It’s a blast of breathless energy that takes only around a minute to set up exactly the kind of movie that director Don Coscarelli plans to throw at the audience.
I’m not sure there is any way I can do a proper plot setup of this film, but I’m about to give it a shot.
Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) are a couple of slackers in their early twenties. While Dave seems slightly tortured by his aimless existence, John revels in the lack of responsibility. Everything changes for them both when John goes to a party and tries a new drug called “Soy Sauce” that gives the user psychic powers, the ability to cross to other dimensions, and communicate from the dead through a bratwurst. The only drawback to the drug is the unfortunate side effect of melting some of its users down to their skeletons. While John survives his initial use of the drug, he and Dave are drawn into a strange conspiracy of alternate realities, a theatrical TV psychic named Marconi (Clancy Brown), a self-described “Old-school Catholic” police detective (Glynn Turman) violently obsessed with closing what he believes is a door to Hell, a dog that pulls off feats of daring-do that would impress Rin-Tin-Tin, and a plot to destroy the human race.
The plot of the film is densely layered and Coscarelli—who also scripted from David Wong’s novel—makes Dave a very unreliable narrator as he tells his story to Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a journalist who is oddly open-minded to the supernatural elements. As Dave, paranoid and now addicted to the drug, relates his tale, he jumps around chronologically, leaves out important details, and eventually comes back to the point he was trying to make by telling his story in the first place, disorienting Arnie, and by extension, the audience.
Having Dave be a suspect storyteller is a clever device that allows Coscarelli to condense the novel into a more manageable story (in the Q&A after the film, Coscarelli joked that 2/3 of the novel didn’t make it into the movie) and forces the plot into the same sort of nightmare logic that powered his Phantasm films. Some might accuse the movie of being sloppy or confusing, but the story matters less in this case than the laughing-at-the-apocalypse tone Coscarelli cultivates with his talented cast and some very assured set-pieces that revel in the film’s absurdity.
The temptation exists to overthink the film and ascribe deeper meaning to the story and the themes it raises than Coscarelli and Wong probably intend. This is a movie that invites the sort of “stoner philosophizing” parodied in any number of hacky movies and sitcoms. But in all honesty, the film doesn’t need that kind of baggage. It’s best viewed for what it is on the surface: a snarky horror comedy that pushes the envelope of creativity within the genre.
Since much of the fun in the film comes from the surprise of every nutty plot twist and the deadpan reactions of Williamson and Mayes, I will not say any more for fear of ruining the experience of seeing it for the first time. It’s playing in limited release and VOD. You will not be disappointed.
In between John Dies at the End and Bubba Ho-Tep, Coscarelli did a Q&A where he touched on several topics:
– On the possibility of a Phantasm 5: He felt the fourth film wrapped everything up. He also acknowledged that he had been approached about selling the rights for a remake of the first film and said he didn’t see the point of remaking it before joking that he was waiting for the right price to “sell out.”
– On what happened with the Bubba Ho-Tep sequel that fell apart: He initially talked around what happened with the film. But in answering a later question, he said that he had Paul Giamatti on board as Colonel Tom Parker but Bruce Campbell did not want to do the film and that’s why it fell apart. Coscarelli admitted that Campbell was busy at the time on Burn Notice and was prepping My Name Is Bruce and that it wasn’t the best time to approach him about the film. He offered up the possibility that it could still happen if Campbell decided to do it.
– On the possibility of a sequel to John Dies at the End: He said that since there was so much he left out of the book and because there is now a sequel novel by Wong (This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It), there is plenty of material to take the characters in any number of directions. But he was also quick to point out the first film would have to do ridiculously well to get a sequel greenlit.
– On using a digital camera for the first time on John Dies at the End: He claimed to be on the fence as far as digital vs. film goes, but he sure sounded pretty negative about digital. The only positive thing he had to say about it was that it provided him more latitude to alter the image in post-production. But he also said that the debate between the two formats was moot since shooting on film is all but dead.
– He touched on several topics in general including the difficulty of funding, making, and finding distribution for independent films; the importance of supporting indie films and theaters; the relative lack of creativity among studio films; and his disappointment that John Carpenter has had such trouble in recent years getting films made.
The most memorable occurrence of the Q&A involved an audience member who asked if he could be in Coscarelli’s next film. His plan backfired when Coscarelli invited him up to the stage for an impromptu audition where the poor guy choked because he had nothing prepared.
As for Bubba Ho-Tep, I don’t feel there is much I can say about the film at this point that probably hasn’t been said better elsewhere. I’ve seen the film more than a dozen times and what really captivates me each time—beyond Bruce Campbell’s amazing performance—is the heart the film shows. Sure, it’s goofy and freaky, but Campbell and Ossie Davis (in cinema’s most unusual portrayal of John F. Kennedy) are playing their characters for real emotion. It’s ultimately a touching film that earns its laughs and sentiment.
My thanks to Don Coscarelli and the Music Box Theatre for putting on a great event.
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