Written by: Don Coscarelli (screenplay), David Wong (novel)
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Last night you had a dream. Your mother was beating you... with a whip of knotted together dicks."
About eighteen months ago, I was part of an audience privileged enough to catch the world’s first glimpse of Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End. The director decided to drop by Fantastic Fest, where he revealed a scene from the film and followed it up with a sizzle reel that left me befuddled. Just what in the fresh hell was this? At the time, I assumed my lack of familiarity with David Wong’s novel was mostly responsible for my bewilderment, but, as it turns out, that’s just John Dies at the End: a diverting, irreverent, vaguely coherent romp through nonsense—and I love every second of it.
Attempting to even distill its experience into something relatable has me empathizing with the poor bastard charged with crafting the official synopsis. Much of the film is an extended flashback relayed by David Wong (Chase Williamson), who recounts his bizarre, drug-addled experiences to a journalist (Paul Giamatti). During the course of the conversation, David reveals that he and his friend John (Rob Mayes) unraveled a plot involving a possibly extraterrestrial drug called Soy Sauce, which grants its users the ability to travel between time and space (among other things—Soy Sauce is another black goo that works arbitrarily, a la Prometheus). According to David, beings from another world also contacted the duo in order to stave off an inter-dimensional invasion, which led to a wild series of adventures involving demonic possession, a psychic dog, and David’s amputee ex-girlfriend (again, among other things).
There comes a point where you have to just give yourself over to John Dies at the End and realize it’s not out to play by the usual rules. It’s a film with a drug addict as a narrator, and it often shows. Forgive the cliché rabbit hole comparison, but the psychedelic, kaleidoscopic storytelling earns it here. John Dies at the End isn’t just like burrowing down one rabbit hole, though, since it digs in one direction before it shoots off in another; by the end, it’s blasted through a wormhole or two as well. Initially, the scatterbrained mentality is a bit tough to pin down, especially since it moves with a breathless pace and expects you to keep up. Once you’re dialed into the film’s speed, however, it sweeps you up in its infectious energy. Irreverence of this sort is a difficult thing to pull off without coming across as smarmy or even juvenile, but John Dies is good-natured and playful.
For something that’s almost pointless and nonsensical to the point of excess, this film also avoids nihilism. It’s too gleeful to get caught up in that, mostly due to the fun, endlessly quotable universe it creates. Williamson and Mayes are wonderfully charismatic leads and make for something of a druggy riff on Bill and Ted; David is the more deadpan and underplayed of the two, while John is a bit more manic and throws himself into the strange stuff they uncover. I only have a passing familiarity with Supernatural, but I imagine this is a trippier version of that show, as it’s full of seemingly episodic encounters that somehow add up to the faintest of coherence.
The duo comes into contact with a wild assortment of characters: you’ve got Doug Jones as a vaguely threatening weirdo from another dimension, while Glynn Thurman is a twitchy cop. Giamatti has wanted to work with Coscarelli for years now, so he relishes the chance to go nuts when the script affords him the chance; he also manages to find some genuine empathy among all the silliness, which is quite a feat. The most memorable turn comes from Clancy Brown, perhaps as you’ve never seen him before as a television magician who is actually a genuinely powerful mystic and demon slayer.
Brown’s Marconi is indicative of the film’s devil-may-care approach; so much of it is fixated on destroying signification and logic, so of course Marconi would be “masquerading” as his true identity. Is there a real point to it? Probably not, but I guess this is what post-post-modernism looks like: totally self-aware, yet also gloriously oblivious all at once. John Dies at the End is seemingly unstuck from any notion of form or discourse—hell, even its title is complete nonsense since John dies not at the end but about a third of the way through…before he returns to communicate via a busted cellphone, a dog, or a bratwurst.
In many ways, Coscarelli is the perfect candidate to shepherd such lunacy given his history with Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, and this marries the hallucinogenic weirdness of the former with the gonzo madness of the latter. It’s definitely not as hazy and dreamlike as Phantasm, though—it’s much more frenzied and reckless. Maybe it’s all the Evil Dead in the air at the moment, but John Dies really reminds me of Sam Raimi due to its boundless energy and its commitment to mixing laughs, scares, and an ample amount of splatter. I could list a dozen other things John Dies recalls (among them: Naked Lunch, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai), but it really has the oddball, genre-mashing spirit of Raimi and John Carpenter.
Coscarelli has always deserved to be mentioned alongside such company, and John Dies is gives him the rare opportunity to for broke. I’d be surprised if this isn’t the biggest budget he’s ever worked with, and he makes the most of it by conjuring up a number of effects, including flying butterfly-mustaches, mutated bugs, and even a demon composed of raw meat and fish that springs out of a freezer while David and John are on one of their ghostbusting adventures. Many of the effects are gloriously practical—real, tactile, rubbery stuff that harkens back to the film’s various B-movie roots. Some of the digital stuff doesn’t fare quite as well. Coscarelli might be working with a bigger budget by his standards, but it’s still not quite as robust compared to studio movies. Still, even these instances work within the confines of the cartoony vibe, and it’s hard to say that Coscarelli doesn’t gleefully spew his imagination all over the screen; it’s almost as if he knows this will probably be his one shot with this mythology, so he puts enough stuff in here for a few movies. The approach leads to a lot of tangents and distractions (such as a prologue that illustrates The Ship of Theseus using an axe, decapitations, and the undead), but it’s masterfully controlled chaos.
Future generations are likely to judge us harshly for letting Coscarelli go an entire decade between making movies. Even in this case, it took him nearly five years to get John Dies into production. Somehow, that delay feels serendipitous since it allowed the film to pick up the same thread started by Cabin in the Woods and Detention. That this one is last in line seems even more right since it both dispenses with and reaffirms form and function; this is cinema apropos of nothing, yet somehow full of meaning. It’s just pure cinema in the same way those films are, and this one is so spirited that it won’t even stop during its own end credits; instead, it rambles on with an epilogue that ends with our two heroes apathetically walking away with a shoulder shrug that suggests both bemusement and satisfaction. I can’t recall the last time a film captured my own feelings towards itself better than that. Buy it!
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