Film Review: John Dies at the End

The going gets weird. Tailor-made cult film starts strong but can’t sustain the freakiness

Mar 6, 2013 at 12:00 am
click to enlarge “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead … try to realize the truth: It’s a fork, dude.”
“Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead … try to realize the truth: It’s a fork, dude.”

John Dies at the End | C+

Or does he? Giving any thought to what this movie is about is overthinking it. The point is that there is no point. Get the point? Which means, of course, that John Dies at the End, the new film from Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep), is a hopeless mess. But, at least, for its first half, a very entertaining mess. After that? Well, reread my third sentence.

The movie opens with an ax, a trip to the hardware store, and a soon-to-be-butchered zombie. David (Chase Williamson) philosophically asks in voice-over narration whether a weapon that has been broken and repaired three times can still be considered the same weapon? The answer to that riddle is: alien insects, voices beyond the grave, interdimensional demons and talking dogs. Yup. It’s that kind of movie. Bill & Ted meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets H.P. Lovecraft.

Twentysomething slackers Dave (Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) stumble upon a strange and dangerous drug called “soy sauce.” It gives users incredible powers of clairvoyance and prognostication, but there’s a catch: Once the sauce chooses you (rather than you choosing it), your life becomes an endless horror show of otherworldly, nonsensical threats. Reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) listens to Dave recount his terrifying experiences, stories filled with brutal murders, alternate realities and outlandishly freakish monsters, but eventually calls bullshit. Then he’s given proof that it’s all true. Then things get even weirder. When is a phone call from your dead friend more than just bizarre? When it’s made on a hot dog.

Filled with smirking eccentricity and twitchy tangents, John Dies at the End is the kind of midnight movie mindfuckery that screams “cult classic.” But after an amusing and intriguing setup, it degenerates into a jumbled pastiche of body-horror gross-outs, goofy gags and hallucinatory dead ends. It’s the kind of movie that encourages you to pay attention to its narrative dada — filled with flashbacks, flash-forwards, interior monologues and past-tense voice overs — but never delivers a payoff for your efforts.

Coscarelli has adapted editor David Wong’s 2007 web serial-turned-novel into cinematic anarchy, trading coherent plotting for situational surrealism. The result is a movie that feels half-finished and underbudgeted. Still, his creepy-crawly imagery and offbeat ideas are delivered with visual panache. There’s a monster made out of frozen meat, a doorknob that transforms into a penis, and a murderous mustache that flies around the room like a bat. But as the this-then-that wormhole of absurdities snowballs in the second half, amusement flatlines into tedium. A final reel Hail Mary pass at narrative relevancy only makes things worse.

The mostly unknown cast is effectively deadpan in their reactions to the terrors that befall them, and Giamatti and Clancy Brown (as a demon-fighting inspirational speaker) turn in bullish day-rate performances. But they’re really just icing on the chaotic, gonzo-filled cake.

I guess it’s pretty rare for a lo-fi comedy horror to meditate on what it means to live in a world that gets more and more unreal all the time, and there is an endearing and empathetic core to John Dies at the End’s ultra-violent posturing. Still, it’s hard to embrace a movie that can’t even be bothered to address whether its title is a spoiler, an ironic statement or something we shouldn’t even bother caring about. Which is, I suppose, beside the point. OK, I get it. I’m just not sure it’s worth getting. mt


Opens Friday, March 8, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-542-5198;