You were expecting maybe Hansel and Gretel? Or Parker?
Actually, Parker is pretty good. But John Dies at the End could be an all-time classic.
In case you missed it, I’m a big fan of John Dies at the End, mainly because it’s not a movie you can really say is like anything else; I have made comparisons to both Naked Lunch (drugs ‘n demons) and Buckaroo Banzai (insanity from alternate dimensions hunted by celebrity superstars) a few times here, but it’s a lot more satisfying as a story than either. And I say that while being pretty sure I’ve hardly figured even half of it out yet. When a movie begins with a guy burying his ax in a dude’s head repeatedly, over multiple periods of time (because he just won’t, y’know, die), it tends to warm my heart and win my attention.
From there, the movie is framed as a conversation between David Wong (Chase Williamson) – who isn’t Asian, but has legally changed his name to have the most common surname in the world so as to be harder to find – and reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti), whom David hopes will tell his story. He then proceeds to spin a yarn that no sane journalist would believe, but his ability to describe Arnie’s dreams and pocket change in detail convinces the flustered scribe to hear the story out.
David and his friend John (Rob Mayes) are supernatural investigators, for whom a routine evening might involve talking down an evil spirit who reconstitutes himself a body made from frozen grocery-store meat. But after John takes a mysterious drug nicknamed “soy sauce,” life becomes even weirder than normal, as the drug endows its taker with psychic powers and the ability to talk to the dead…or at least think you do (there’s some ambiguity at first, but by the end you roll with the idea that crazy shit truly is going down). Provided it doesn’t kill you first for being unworthy of taking it.
Dave eventually winds up taking the drug too, when it turns into an insect and literally flies into his face, after which John Dies in the Middle…or maybe doesn’t. Regardless, he’s still talking inside Dave’s head, and the plot thickens when Doug Jones shows up as an alien with a fanged slug creature for a pet, and then another alien turns out to be an almost Scientology-style shell of a human infected by a slew of dead alien souls. Throw in Clancy Brown as a famous psychic, and an alternate dimension in which history diverged right around the Civil War and a big ball of evil is behaving like an organic computer, and frankly you’ll see that I couldn’t spoil this for you if I tried, which of course is the central joke of the title.
Director Don Coscarelli often pulls off wonders on low budgets, but let’s be honest – as much as we all love Bubba Ho-Tep, those flying scarabs looked like what they were: cheap wind-up toys dipped in fake slime. Here, with an array of computer effects at his disposal, we no longer need to forgive him any (unintentional) cracks in the reality. Yes, there’s one sequence done in animation because there’s no way it would have been affordable in live-action, but it comes at a point where things have gone so far down the rabbit hole that the style-shift feels natural.
If the whole things sounds hard to follow, let me only partly reassure you that it is and it isn’t. Yes, figuring out everything that is happening is highly unlikely on a first viewing, but it doesn’t really matter. You know that Dave and John are in danger, you know roughly from whom (or what), but the surrounding details are what may take days to nitpick as only a nerd can.
Coscarelli has been dubbed one of the “Masters of Horror,” but it’s not quite true – he’s the master of really strange comedic twists on horror premises, from Phantasm‘s creepy midget-making mortician from outer space to aged Elvis and JFK fighting a redneck mummy in Bubba Ho-Tep. Here, he starts from a strange twist and unleashes his id to pile them on – yes, it’s based on a book, but a book that fits its newfound filmmaker to a tee. It’s hard to set out to make a cult movie, as they usually set off a bullshit alarm triggered by the worst kind of self-awareness (see The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra for one such movie that’d be great if it lost about 30 minutes of the deliberately corny dialogue its director is too in love with), but I don’t believe Coscarelli sets out to be weird. He makes stuff that entertains him, and it just happens to be bugfuck nuts, which is why it endures. As with his prior career highlights, I imagine he’ll be fielding sequel questions on John Dies so long as he continues to work.
John Dies at the End opens in theaters today.
And if you haven’t seen Paul Giamatti’s attempts at reading the male lead roles in Twilight, You’ve Got Mail and Magic Mike, you need to.