John Dies at the End Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 01.25.2013
Phantasm director Don Coscarelli returns for his first film in ten years with the bizarre sci-fi/horror comedy John Dies at the End! But is it worth your time? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
Directed by: Don Coscarelli Written by: Don Coscarelli
Starring: Chase Williamson - Dave Rob Mayes - John Paul Giamatti - Arnie Blondestone Clancy Brown - Dr. Albert Marconi Glynn Turman - Detective Doug Jones - Roger North Daniel Roebuck - Largeman Fabianne Therese - Amy Jonny Weston - Justin White Jimmy Wong - Fred Chu Tai Bennett - Robert Marley
Running Time: 99 minutes
Rated R for bloody violence and gore, nudity, language and drug content
It's hard to imagine that Don Coscarelli hasn't made a film in a decade. For that matter, it's hard to imagine that Bubba Ho-Tep, Coscarelli's last feature, is ten years old. The legendary B-movie director who is best known for Ho-Tep and the Phantasm franchise has been on quite the sabbatical since 2002; outside of directing an episode of Masters of Horror in 2005, there hasn't been much of a peep out of him. It makes sense, however, that a film like John Dies at the End would bring him out of hiding and lure him back into filmmaking. The sci-fi horror comedy, which stars Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes, hits theaters today following a VOD release to see if it can pick up some box office cash, though most of its money is destined to be made following its home video release.
The film stars Williamson and Mayes as Dave and John, two fairly average slackers in their mid-twenties. Or they would be, if it weren't for soy sauce. Soy sauce is the designer drug that the two get introduced to by way of a dreadlock-coiffed alleged psychic named Robert Marley (no, not the one you're thinking of) that the two meet at a party where John's band is playing. Taking it opens up your mind to psychic powers and a sort of hyper-intelligence, but it also reveals the existence of extra-dimensional beings who are intent on infesting anyone on the sauce and turning them into gory, corpsey messes. Before long, the two find themselves allied with a detective (Turman), Dave's one-handed crush Amy (Therese), fellow slacker Fred (Wong) and Amy's dog Bark Lee to try and stop the end of the world.
That plot summary doesn't quite do the film's storyline justice, but then it is rather difficult to do said storyline justice without revealing too much. Coscarelli adapted the screenplay from David Wong's serial web novel-turned-cult comic horror hit of the same name as the film. Wong's (real name Jason Pargin) novel is a rather dense piece of work, and adapting it into a standard-length film couldn't have been an easy task, though if anyone was going to adapt it, you probably wouldn't be able to find someone better suited to the task then the man who wrote Bubba Ho-Tep. Coscarelli uses a framing element involving Dave recounting the events of the film to a skeptical reporter named Arnie (Giamatti). One might think that this would take the high stakes out of the film; after all, why do we need to worry about Dave and John saving the world if Dave is able to tell the tale to someone else?
However, it quickly becomes clear that in this film, all the rules are out the window. Coscarelli kicks off the film with a fantastic sequence that asks a surprisingly philosophical question in the humorous, gore-soaked way that only a horror comedy can and then gets weirder from there. Brief sequences involving Dave and John as a kind of low-rent Ghostbusters unit fighting meat monsters gives way to the main plotline, which doesn't actually start until fifteen minutes into the film. From there the narrative settles down...somewhat, anyway. Coscarelli's script is deliriously disjointed; cohesiveness is a secondary priority in favor of ghosts speaking through dogs and Bratwurst phones, ghost doors, alternate dimensions, time travel, a congregation of nude women in freaky masks and more. There are times when this lack of narrative structure works well and the film thunders ahead; there are others where it just gets bogged down in weirdness. Most of the time the most you get in explanation is "Things are in motion," though when we are given explanation it is done through an overabundance of dialogue that doesn't adequately cover what we need to know. Coscarelli keeps things moving so quickly that he hopes you don't notice how little sense it makes. Or perhaps he doesn't care. Both are possible.
When the script works though, it really works. The humor is wonderfully offbeat; when David explains to the reporter that his last name is Wong because it would make him harder to find, noting that "Wong is the most common name in the world," you can't help but chuckle a bit. The way that the characters sometimes acknowledge how wacked-out the storyline is helps take some of the air out of any potential complaints, the occasional dips into philosophy are well-done and the alternate dimension stuff holds up surprisingly well. One particularly inspired plot point is a notion that ghosts appear differently to people for a particular reason that is explained later in the film in a way that makes a lot of sense. These aren't quite enough to let the script truly be an asset, but they absolutely provide moments of genuine thrill at watching something so strange that it dares you not to like it. It's difficult to take up that dare and win.
What really makes the film work however is the work in front of and behind the camera. Chase Williamson is essentially a newcomer to the acting scene, with just a couple short films and the webseries Never Fade Away to his credit, but he does a fine job in the lead role as Dave while Rob Mayes has a good handle on the strangeness that is John. John is essentially Dave's guide through the weirdness of the film and Mayes tackles it a with a bit of a knowing smirk that works well. It helps that they have a fantastic supporting cast including Giamatti as the reporter Arnie, Clancy Brown as the TV psychic Dr. Marconi, Turman as the weirded-out detective, Doug Jones as the enigmatic Roger North and Fabianne Therese as Amy. All of the cast knows exactly what they're going for with this film and are perfectly in synch. This is a feat which many horror comedies actually tend to find very tricky; one of the most important elements of the combination genre is getting the tone right and one disparate performance can spin the whole thing off into disaster territory. Thankfully that doesn't happen here and the film carries through some of the rougher parts due to our willingness to give the characters some leeway.
As a director, Coscarelli has not always been successful; however, he has always been interesting. With John Dies, the enthusiastically B-movie man comes out to play rather gleefully. Comparisons to Sam Raimi's low-budget genre work are inevitable; some special effects sequences bear a distinctly Raimi stamp to them but have Coscarelli's own flavor. Robert Kurtzman was the makeup man on this film; considering his long association with both Raimi and Coscarelli having worked on both of their most famous franchises (Evil Dead and Phantasm), the similarities were probably inevitable but it makes it no less enjoyable. The whole thing is edited in a haphazard way to make little sense, but that is largely the point. By the end of the film, enough of it makes sense that you don't walk away feeling like you have been watching a house of cards get built up just so it can be knocked over. Rather, it feels like we've just seen something that just barely manages to avoid being too clever for its own good. It is funny enough to send its core audience home happy; confused, astounded and likely arguing with oneself and others over the details, but happy nonetheless.
The 411: Strange, disjointed and often hilarious, John Dies in the End is a film that is destined to confound and divide genre fans. The bizarrely madcap and purposefully out-there antics of the plot have a bumpy but interesting road, leaving the cast and crew to make the whole thing work as well as it does. A distinctly B-movie atmosphere and some insanely brilliant (or brilliantly insane) concepts make the whole thing play out far better than one mind expect. Ultimately, John Dies in the End is one of those films that will not leave many people in the middle; it is destined to be a "love or hate" scenario. That being said, for those who appreciate Coscarelli's sensibilities and don't mind giving their plots a bit of faith (not to mention a whole lot of loose ends in terms of logic), this is an incredibly inspired (if flawed) horror comedy.