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Match made in weirdo heaven

Director and author's similar sensibility makes for bizarre, surreal film

A couple of average guys face weird supernatural phenomena and become aware of alternate, sinister planes of existence.

In 1979, that would suffice as the description of the cult horror movie Phantasm, which pitted a pair of brothers against an evil mortician in control of a race of alien dwarves constructed from the bodies of dead humans.

Director Don Coscarelli on the set of John Dies at the End.

Director Don Coscarelli on the set of John Dies at the End.

Thirty-four years later, it also serves as an accurate description of John Dies at the End, a hallucinogenic comedy based on a contemporary cult novel by David Wong.

As it happens, both films were directed by Don Coscarelli, a Libyan-born Los Angeleno who established himself as a kind of filmmaking savant when he directed a feature -- Jim, the World's Greatest -- at the age of 19 and became the youngest filmmaker to have a film distributed by a major studio.

Coscarelli is now 59 years old but he maintains a fresh approach to genre cinema. Post-Phantasm, he proved it again in 2002 with the release of Bubba Ho-Tep, a strange but rollicking supernatural thriller set in a retirement home where an elderly Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) was pitted against a malevolent Egyptian demon mummy clad in cowboy boots.

And he proves it with John Dies at the End, in which a couple of friends sample a strange sentient drug called "Soy Sauce" and find themselves plunged into a struggle to save the Earth from the intrusion of beings from an alternate realm of existence.

The question arises: Given the similarity between Phantasm and JDATE, was author Wong (a pseudonym for Jason Pargin) familiar with Coscarelli's four Phantasm films?

"You would have to ask him," says Coscarelli on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

"I will tell you that once I read the book and decided I wanted to make it into a film, I spent a month leaving emails for the guy with no response," Coscarelli says. "When I finally got hold of him, he told me that he thought it was a friend pranking on him because he was a fan of my movies. So I guess he was familiar with them.

"When I finally had a conversation about this, he said he thought I would be great working on this, 'because it's so much like one of your earlier movies,'" Coscarelli recalls. "I said, 'Yeah, I see a lot of similarities with Phantasm.' And he said, 'No I thought it was a lot closer to Bubba Ho-Tep.'

"But he gets my stuff and boy, I sure get his stuff."

Of course, a more modern sensibility distinguishes JDATE from Coscarelli's previous films, which is especially obvious when the heroes are confronted with bizarre spectacles such as an assailant constructed entirely from freezer meats. Coscarelli acknowledges blasé, seen-it-all millennials are a breed apart from the heroes he once invented.

"There was a certain level of apathy to the characters that was not something I would have naturally brought in," he says. "There are sequences in the book and the movie where really strange things happen and yet they'll just kind of look at it and go: 'Hmm, that's different.'

"Whereas if I was writing it, I'd have the characters scream and run out of the room."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 C16

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