TIFF: JOHN DIES AT THE END

john cribbs

John Dies at the End opens with a variation on Theseus's paradox which debates whether or not an axe is the same axe if its head and handle have been replaced* due to various skirmishes with agents of evil (not unlike Reggie restoring the black Hemi Cuda convertible after it was trashed by the Tall Man's minions at the end of Phantasm II.) Although this application also works on the movie itself - it's taken practically verbatim from David Wong's book so, adapted to film, is it still Wong's story? Is it the screenwriter-director's? Does it now belong to Chase Williamson, the actor who plays David Wong, not the author the character, the author's real name being Jason Pargin? Complicated, right? - what really matters in this prologue is what the victim, the one who was "already dead" the first time the weapon was used against him, says: "That's the axe that killed me!" A living person claiming an axe killed him, in a scenario that can theoretically continue in a loop ad nauseam: the slain party rises, the destroyed weapon once again does its job. The set-up remains the same, even though the parts and the players have changed, yet the introduction of these alterations has opened it to infinite variations.

As Chris mentioned in his Sundance write-up, a simple prick of perception-altering "soy sauce" gives Coscarelli the only convention he needs to license practically any kind of science fictiony-horror scenario for his lead characters to stumble into, so that a fight for life against a flying bat-mustache can seamlessly transition to a scene involving an imposing meat monster without skipping a beat. But even without the drug-fueled plot device, this is the kind of thing Coscarelli's been doing for years: somehow compiling feature films out of even more gloriously convoluted approaches to bizarre scenarios. The man has made incoherence into an art form - while his style may not be as malleable (or bankable) as that of contemporaries John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, his movies are smarter and far less conventional. To wit: his latest provides a prologue that presents the pair as seasoned monsterhunters, an epilogue that suggests they're reluctant to get involved in any weird science fictiony-horror thing ever again, a framing narrative that's completely divorced from the rest of the movie and the story proper in which reality shifts so readily it's not surprising that Paul Giamatti doesn't believe a word of this shit. So if a director can take an already complicated plot and still manage to skew the narrative and turn it completely on its head the question becomes, is it still a movie?

Most horror film heroes have to accept some kind of simple reality - that Fred Kruger doesn't exist if you ignore him, or that there are boogeymen in the world, or that the dead should stay dead. Not only does Coscarelli playfully make these kind of personal acceptances elusive and their reality treacherous for his characters, he often manages to also pull a fast one on the audience by bending the rules of storytelling to his own design (but always surrealistically and subtlely, never self-consciously a'la post-modern horror-comedy bullshit a'la the Scream series.) In the Phantasm philms, there's always something different in the transition from sequel to sequel, whether it's a lead character from the previous movie being completely written-out and never mentioned again or a simple switch of location (the same scene shifted from Mike's house in Phantasm to Reggie's house in part II, for example.) It would be easy enough to point out practical reasons for these odd changes - budget compromises, the recasting of actors from one movie to the other, eight years between sequels - but really, continuity is Coscarelli's bitch. Otherwise how would you explain why he does this kind of thing within the same movie? At the end of Phantasm, Reggie assures Michael that nothing from the previous 90 minutes has occurred, only to have the Tall Man turn up and have the last laugh. Phantasm II opens with the same scene, expands it to include Reggie saving Michael's life and blowing up his house, then cuts to years later when, once again, Reggie claims to have no memory about what went down - not just in the previous story, but in the first scene of the one he's right in the middle of!**

Again it's all about acceptance: do we acknowledge that there's a crazy tall dude stealing corpses with the help of hooded munchkins, but reject that he's from another planet/time/reality and has flying silver balls that bore a hole through people's faces? Bubba Ho-Tep is also about accepting reality one level at a time: by allowing a flashback, Coscarelli more or less verifies that a tired Elvis Presley (also the film's narrator) chose to give up the fame and fortune and switch lives with an impersonator, spending the rest of his existence in a trailer home (which exploded, hence no evidence.) But even if we the audience accept that, we're also stuck with the even more unbelievable scenario of a JFK who survived the assassination, had his skin dyed black and brain replaced with sawdust, which even Elvis doesn't totally buy save a suspicious look at a mysterious scar on the back of Jack's head (it could be from the head wound seen in the Zapruder film, but then it might not be.) In the meantime, we're so busy contemplating these "are these characters crazy/senile?" questions we kind of take for granted the accepted reality of an ancient mummy in a cowboy hat going around sucking the souls out of old folks' assholes. Coscarelli presents two different kinds of ambiguous scenarios: the familiar, easily explainable (a crazy Elvis impersonator thinks he's the real thing) and the outragerous, which one can't even begin to understand without several movies worth of theories and exposition (an indestructible Tall Man with a seemingly inexhaustible cache of replacement bodies who bleeds embalming fluid and robs graves for...some reason?) And remarkably, it's the outrageous that the characters, and by proxy the audience, are willing to accept, in a moment of sudden clarity exemplified in the scene in Phantasm where Jody looks into the box with the writhing severed finger and announces to his little brother: "All right, I believe you."

In the case of John Dies, the clearest question is whether the soy sauce really makes you see these unseeable things, or if all the characters' experiences are merely byproducts of the drug itself. It doesn't help that the one person David (also the film's narrator) makes an effort to get to believe his story, Paul Giamatti's ostensible audience surrogate Arnie Blondestone, turns out to be a creation of David's imagination. However this frustrating little rule of John's world - that innocent victims of the movie's madmen and demons continue to project themselves in some form, based on the characters' impression of what they might look like - happens to be a self-fulfilling demonstration: the projected individual is not physical and must therefore be mental (transmitting from the living person's mind), but since the (non)existence of these...would the right word be phantasms?...validates the bizarre workings of John's outrageous reality, it permits it. For Coscarelli, the unreal is what's real, so of course a character who substantiates that unreality by negating himself is the one who has to be convinced of its existence, and not easily - since David doesn't have a finger in a box, he has to correctly guess the exact amount of change in Arnie's pocket, recite a dream Arnie had the previous evening and show him a spider monster in a cage to make him realize that the familiar scenario (two guys making shit up in a Chinese restaurant) is trumped by the outrageous (one of them doesn't even fucking exist), insisting that the unimaginable is "physically impossible" to avoid.

That line is another great antithetical truth within the Coscarelliverse: of course, something unimaginable is itself defined as being physically impossible, so of course the act of avoiding the physically impossible would technically be unimaginable. Why else would Amy be able to open the "ghost door" with her absent "ghost hand?" The irrational nullifies the plausible: a hand that no longer exists opens a door that can't be there, a shattered axe can continue to disembowel the same dude who it already killed. The point in the film where Arnie finds out he's a decapitated corpse in a trunk pulls a Total Recall-like twist where the one potentially clear-headed outside party is phased from existence, and David and John can continue their adventures, whether they're real or not (like in Total Recall, it's a quiet and sort of tragic scene set in the middle of the mayhem, expertly directed.) To call this triumph of the self-fulfilling/contradicting abnormal some form of dream logic would be over-simplifying, although it's not far off the mark as an analogy: Phantasm ends with a scene suggesting that nothing that's happened so far has been real, only to verify that the threat really does exist and has existed all along.*** In Part III, something that happens in a dream turns out to have actually happened in the reality of the movie - specifically, Reggie saving Michael from the Tall Man through apparently subconsciously willing it to be so. Thus Dave rebuilding the axe invites the undead agents of evil to return for battle, Michael can't help but release the impossible evil of the Tall Man back into reality in ObIVion, Reggie wills the miraculous rescue of his kidnapped companion and it becomes so, the question is: how does the brain know the thunderclap is coming?

So it's physical reality that Coscarelli's heroes actively do avoid, and of course the ultimate neutralizer is death - fact or fiction, good or evil, pre- or post-battle axe, nothing matters when you're dead, unless life as a dwarf slave on some red-hued, low-gravity planet appeals to you. If the heroes are forced to play the game of these warped invasions by weird creatures who simply won't remain dead, then they'll follow suit. Within the first Phantasm alone, Coscarelli retcons everything in the final scene so that the previously-gutted Reggie is alive and the untouched Jody is the one who's dead; from that point on, in the transition from one sequel to another, a character may be on the edge of inescapable peril and survive (Reggie from III to IV) or seem totally fine only to reappear as a mutilated corpse (Liz from II to III.) Coscarelli resurrects Elvis and JFK, both long dead in reality, to fight an unkillable monster. Is there any doubt that he knew John Dies at the End was right up his alley based on the title alone? He initially subverts it by having John die in the middle of the movie, then having him live on as a disembodied voice, and inexplicably reviving (by a dog, just like Freddy Kruger in Nightmare 4) if he was in fact dead in the first place.

That is to say, we never see John die; Dave is informed of his death by staunch pro-realist Detective Lawrence Appleton (Glynn Turman), whose response to the encroachment of supernatural forces into the real world is to just burn it all down; amusingly enough, he's the closest any of John's characters come to the mentality of the Phantasm heroes - to just keep blowing evil away and hoping it stays dead (also amusingly, Turman almost played Han Solo.****) Appleton doesn't make it to the end of the movie, but I'd put money on his return if there was a sequel, since dying is the ultimate loss of control that preoccupies his heroes. To have already surrendered their senses to the backwards science of phenomenons they have no chance of ever comprehending, maintaining a physical presence is the one thing they have to rely on even if death is, ironically enough, completely unreliable. Coscarelli usually prefers to suit up blue collar schlubs, cops and ice cream men and retired hillbillies (although Dave and John are presented as smart-alecky students, they're both presented as aloof, uncouth and out of legitimate work) who remain stubbornly vertical, while anyone rational doesn't have a chance: despite returning as a ghost in later entries, Phantasm's too-good-for-small-town Jody is wasted off-screen, Bubba Ho-Tep's well-dressed, well-read Jack winds up unmistakably breathless (whereas Elvis' fate is left at least somehwat open-ended) and an alternative title to Coscarelli's latest could be Arnie Blondestone Never Existed in the Beginning.

For these modern men-of-the-earth, maintaining vitality means holding onto their masculinity, and in the tradition of the classic Dos Equis-swigging, shared survivor's mentality male camaraderie between Michael & Reggie (threatened by a giant child-menacer) and Elvis & Jack (trying to save their asses from a soul-raping mummy), Dave & John find themselves confronted with weirdly sexual intimidations. Early in the film, John charges up a basement staircase to escape a hulking meat monster, only to have the doorknob turn into a massive penis the second he touches it ("That door cannot be opened!" he announces.) Later, the cult of Korrok flatter the two would-be prophets with murals depicting them with giant bulges protruding from their prophetic pants. Even Arnie has dreams about being flogged by a cat o'nine cocks; in this context, the broken axe is like a deflated erection, ready to spring back into action when called upon - not too flimsy a reading of a film by the man who has his characters constantly running from penetrating silver balls. Of course Elvis' problems with his pecker are memorably relieved by the excitement of challenging an evil mummy, but the longest suffering of Coscarelli's macho warriors is Reggie, humiliated by numerous failed sexual conquests: in Phantasm II, his girlfriend turns out to be an undead minion of the Tall Man; in III Rocky handcuffs him to the bed so he won't try any moves on her while she sleeps (she ultimately abandons the quest against evil); in IV the beautiful seductress is another Tall Man double agent who turns out to have silver ball-boobs (Reggie retaliates in kind to these supernatural cock-teases by emasculating an apparently not-sexless Graver in Phantasm II).

It's also interesting that Phantasm II is the only film in the series with a love interest for Michael, who for the only time is played by a different actor (call it retcocking), again begging the Theseus paradox: did Mike still have a girlfriend who shared a psychic link with him if she only existed when he was being played by James LeGros? Either way, it figures that if there had to be a conventional (and studio-forced) heterosexual relationship in a Coscarelli movie, it couldn't have lasted, since winning the girl is always a secondary concern to finding them physically and sexually unthreatening. Weirdly, that's what links the heroes to the monsters, the earthly hang-ups of Coscarelli's men directly connected to the menace of their otherworldly foes. In the original Phantasm, Michael's fear of being ignored and ultimately abandoned by older brother Jody are countered by the arrival of an impossibly Tall Man who spirits folks away by physically reducing them into Michael-sized dwarfs. Bruce Campbell's forgotten Elvis Presley (stuck with the name Sebastian Haff, as in "haff" a man) bemoans his fading virility and diminishing legend even as he and his fellow fogeys are menaced by an immortal mummy (also a dethroned "king") of enduring mythology. In John Dies, the characters' personal dilemmas are more vague than in Coscarelli's previous films although it's clear that Dave's attempt to woo Amy is an appalling failure. It isn't until they've run the gauntlet together that he has any hope of her appreciating him (even then, she kind of just stops being in the movie at one point in favor of reuniting Dave with boy-buddy John), echoing Elvis' longing for something beyond biological destiny: "Is there finally and really anything to life other than food, shit and sex?" There is, but it's basically supernatural variations of the same: a hulking meat monster, an ass-draining mummy and hot gals who take off their shirt only to reveal two deadly silver spheres beneath.

If Coscarelli's movies have boring moments (and they do) it's because he has an obvious distaste for boring places - funeral homes, nursing homes, police departments - and his attitude is reflected in the tone, as well as the geography (the abandoned town in Phantasm II, the after-hours nursing home of Bubba Ho-Tep, the empty mall in John.) But he's not afraid to let things get boring, as long as it's still clinically hypnotic, a Tarkovskian kind of boring, as if you're nodding off in the loading car of a lulling train into the bowels of hell. Speaking of which, he also doesn't trust religion: it's no wonder that the priest Dave reaches out to for help turns out to be a demonic Angus Scrimm (which made me think of the Tall Man's famous line "You think that when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!") The more earthbound, the less trusting: follow these institutions and your ultimate reward will be to have your body desecrated and sent to Saturn for slave labor; if people are suiting up for church, they might as well strip naked, throw on a mask and start worshiping at the altar of Korrok (the biggest flaw of John is that reliable character actors Clancy Brown and Daniel Roebuck are stuck in the slow "institute" scenes and don't get to do much).

Like death, these establishments strip away identity even if, like death, identity in a Coscarelli film is entirely unreliable. Paul Giamatti's Arnie discovers that he's actually an old black man, the inverse of Ossie Davis' altered Jack Kennedy; David Wong has a Chinese name even though he's white; the dealer of the soy sauce with a Rastafarian hat and Jamaican accent claims his name is "Robert Marley," with no less a claim to the moniker as Sebastain Haff to "Elvis Presley." True identity is a reality that struggles to get out - even if it's a fake identity, it's the reality that Coscarelli's characters can cling to when shit gets unreal. This genuineness even extends to the productions themselves - it's now the standard of the Phantasms that Michael Baldwin plays Michael and Reggie Bannister plays Reggie (making "James LeGros as Michael" seem even less legit) - which makes sense since a film "written and directed by Don Coscarelli" is itself always a personal project gorged with compatible and contradicting identities, its connective tissue characterized by the fact that it's distinctively disconnected. That axe will forever look the same, and always be different.

NEXT: To the Wonder

 

* Specifically it's a reference to the application of Plutarch's paradox to "George Washington's axe," the apocryphal story of the famous cherry tree defiler changing hands - as well as heads and handles - through the years, the French equivalent being "Jeannot's knife."

** Funny that I've already brought up the second Phantasm so much, considering it's by far the most studio-fied and straight-forward of the tetralogy - don't even get me started on Part IV.

*** Wes Craven borrowed the same ending for Nightmare on Elm Street, although since that film is all about dreams it's a lot more conventional; also, the same character gets killed a second time, so the continuity remains more or less the same. Also Time Bandits, although in that case not exactly the same and certainly not relevant to this topic.

**** According to George Lucas, he thought it would give the movie an edge to develop Han and Leia as an interracial couple, but the studio shot him down. I guess Billy Dee Williams was the ultimate compromise (there is that weird scene at the end of Empire where Lando is wearing Hans' clothes for no apparent reason.)

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