Drugs, Demons, and Parallel Dimensions: 'John Dies at the End'
(A) fright fan's fever dream laced with a healthy dose of '80s high concept camp creeps.
You've got to hand it to Don Coscarelli. After three decades in service of his scary movie franchise, Phantasm, he started the new millennium with the hilarious horror mash-up Bubba Ho-Tep. That film, featuring Evil Dead icon Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis battling an ancient mummy became an instant cult classic. Now, nearly a decade later, he is back. No, not with the proposed sequel Bubba Nosferatu, but with a brazenly bizzaro world comedy called John Dies at the End. Based on a popular novel by Jason Pargin (under the pseudonym "David Wong") and dealing with drugs, demons, and parallel dimensions, it serves as a solid reminder of why Coscarelli is so well loved among horror geeks. It also illustrates why his vision won't be copping any mainstream acceptance anytime soon.
Our story starts with David (Chase Williamson) proposing a riddle that, when answered, will offer up the secrets of the universe. We then meet a reporter named Arnie (Paul Giamatti) whose been contacted about our lead's unusual story. Seems he and his friend John (Rob Mayes) got mixed up with a Jamaican pusher who deals in something called "Soy Sauce." One hit, and you see doorways of perception open up that heretofore unknown to humans. There are some unusual side effects (seeing into the future, mindreading) as well.
The stuff also taps in to an unseen force known as Korrock who plans on using the drug as a means of sending his minions over into our world. There's some portals, a ghost door, and a large, throbbing eye creature. As the police investigate the strange goings on around town, Dave is convinced he can control his reactions. With the help of his friend, who may or may not be dead, the dog of an amputee named Amy (Fabianne Therese), and a famous infomercial psychic (Clancy Brown), he hopes to stop Korrock once and for all.
Or something like that...
If this all sounds like a surreal amalgamation of David Cronenberg and Albert Band, well, you'd be partially right. John Dies at the End (which may or may not be the truth, by the way) is like a fright fan's fever dream laced with a healthy dose of '80s high concept camp creeps. The movie is a reminder of the days when terror was tempered by wit, when practical effects dominated the genre, and ideas and the reimagining of same trumped attempts at regurgitating the same old movie macabre. Like the zombie cop romp Dead Heat (featuring Treat Williams and...wait for it...Joe Piscopo) or other films trying to find a new way to tell a familiar tale, John Dies at the End uses its 'drug as a doorway' designs to fill the screen with all manner of madness.
Indeed, this is one of the weirdest movies to come out in the last decade or so. It's beyond the meta-mania of something like The Cabin in the Woods. Instead, Coscarelli relies on our familiarity with the genre to fill in the blanks the plotline often misses or avoids. We constantly jump back and forth in time, forget important information that is necessary for later denouements, and wonder just who in the Hell dreamt up this psycho scenario. As our hero narrates his adventures, or better yet, tries to explain them (unsuccessfully, one might add), Coscarelli uses a bevy of bravura moves to turn the tired into something slick and savvy. This is hipster horror at its most accessible. It may be smug and smarmy, but it's also smart.
What it's not, is scary. John Dies at the End seems to fall into the inevitable trap that faces most laugh-filled dread - to wit, the humor is on the mark, the fear is not. Sure, there are a couple of jump scares, and we do get a lot of nasty gore, but for the most part, they are in service of the satire, not the other way around. At least Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard remembered that the main reason behind their film was to give people the heebie jeebies. With John Dies at the End, all we get are a few solid set pieces, some nifty animation (both computer and traditional) and a lot of indie irony served up without a desire to include the clueless. This movie is like an exclusive club. If you aren't a paying member of the post post-modern movie set, you just won't "get" it.
Still, in his defense, Coscarelli knows how to entertain, even if he doesn't quite understand how to shiver us to the bone. The various elements used in John Dies at the End are compelling, as is the whole "Soy Sauce"/living entity angle of the narrative. There should be more of that. Also, the acting parallels the personal storylines onscreen. As the title personality, Mr. Mayes strikes the right balance between bravery and buffoon. We are never quite sure if he will rise to the occasion, or slump over in a chair. Amy, on the other hand, is around for the intro and the ending, which means Ms. Therese has nothing to work with. Clancy Brown's extended cameo shows what a fine character actor he really is, while Paul Giamatti has the look of exasperation down to a science.
That just leaves Mr. Williamson, and as a lead, he's likeable if not quite compelling. He's too snarky, too insular in what is going on to connect. He reacts like someone of his particular personal bent would - angst-ridden on the inside, ambiguous on the outside. In fact, he's a lot like the movie he's in charge of. With something like Bubba Ho-Tep, we fell in love with the characters first while enjoying their adventures secondarily. Here, it's all about the plots many amusing (and often confusing) twists and turns. While there is still hope that Coscarelli can raise his aging King of Rock and Roll from the dead for one more vampire-inspired adventure, fans will have to settle for John Dies at the End for now. While not as fulfilling as the Phantasm franchise, it's one of the better oddball fright flicks in a long time