Feb. 13 2013 04:01 PM

Oscar-nominated actor and Phantasm' director team up for a small-budget horror comedy

Paul Giamatti brings the star power.

Most filmmakers, after reading David Wong's Internet-serialized novel John Dies at the End, would likely think it impossible to make into a movie. It's a strange book, told from the point of view of a snarky protagonist. But Don Coscarelli, the director behind the Phantasm franchise and the cult hits Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, isn't most filmmakers.

"Look, I'm an optimist," he tells CityBeat. "I saw a path when I read the book."

That path led to the big-screen horror-comedy adaptation, which opens at Hillcrest Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 15. The movie is about two slackers, Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), who have a business saving clients from the supernatural. When the movie opens, Dave is sitting at a diner with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), telling him about the duo's experience with Soy Sauce, a new street drug that kills almost everyone who comes in contact with it and seems to be opening a portal to another dimension, whose inhabitants are determined to take over this one.

That's a lot to take on without much of a budget, so you might find it odd that a Hollywood star like Giamatti is appearing in the independently financed effort, especially in a supporting role. But Giamatti's more than just an actor here— he also produced the film, along with Coscarelli, and was one of the driving forces in making it happen.

"We met through Eli Roth," Giamatti says, referring to the horror director behind the Hostel movies. "I'm not a huge fan of those super-violent torture films, but I actually like Eli's torture movies. He got the two of us together, and we tried to make a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep. It nearly happened, and then didn't, but Don said, ‘Let's just make this one. I think I can actually do this one without a studio helping us out.' That seemed insane to me, that he was going to do this with me without any support, but that's how he does things."

The movie is at times clever and funny, and seriously bloody, even if the ending doesn't quite live up to the promise of the beginning. Putting it together was a challenge, since there was no studio funding, but, Giamatti says, plenty of people want to work with Coscarelli.

"He can call in favors, and there are people who just really love him and really love what he does," he says. "He's got some of the top guys, some of the best prosthetic guys in Hollywood, and they did it for free because they love his stuff, they love what he's doing and they love the fact that he's an old-school, handson eccentric maverick out there doing his own thing." 

One of the biggest changes for Coscarelli is the way John Dies at the End will get to audiences. Though it's having a small theatrical release, it's been available since late 2012 in other ways, like video on demand, iTunes, Xbox and Amazon Instant Video. That's kind of ironic, because Coscarelli's movies have usually gained notoriety after they've left theaters and been discovered on DVD or at midnight screenings. The distribution switcheroo is new to him.

"Some of my later Phantasm films, like Phantasm 3 and Phantasm 4, received the curse of going direct to video," he says. When a title went straight to video back in the day, it was perceived as being junk. We worked very hard on those movies, and I'm still very proud of them, but the nature of the distribution informed how people perceived them. Now folks are accepting this completely. It's weird, but it's an entirely new generation that's used to getting their media where they want and when they want it. Having it available on iPad or iPhone or on their TV right away is preferable to them, so we'll see how it works out. It's still in theaters, which is good, but it's definitely a new world out there."

Write to anders@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.

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