With a title like this, you’d be expecting something predictable, right? I mean, c’mon guys, don’t spoil it for us. I sat down with this movie in a state of mild curiosity – it was a time-killer – and an hour or so later I was watching a man getting rescued from a burning trailer by a dog driving a car. A moment of self-awareness crept in, and I realised I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
It is also worth pointing out that, in the grand scheme of things, that counts as a spoiler just as much as the movie’s title does. John Dies At The End makes a mockery out of predictability and surefooted reason. It is a celebration of the stranger notion, the taller tale. A small-scale picture with ‘mania’ tattooed on its ass. A dog driving a car is the least of your worries in this movie. Imagine the sensibilities of Quentin Dupieux (Rubber, Wrong) and James Gunn (Slither, Super) colliding, and you’re probably still a little short of the mark.
Director Don Coscarelli has dabbled in such pleasing lunacy before, from the video-rental classic Phantasm through to millennial cult favourite Bubba Ho-Tep. Either his attachment or the word-of-mouth notoriety of the source material means that, yes, there are ‘credible’ names attached to this picture – Paul Giamatti is dependably excellent in a supporting role, as is The Wire‘s Glynn Turman. Clancy Brown also puts in a box-tickingly-mental spot of face-time. However (and rightly so for this kind of B-picture) the heavy-lifting goes to a small collective of unknowns.
So what is it about? Framed by narrator Dave (Chase Williamson) telling/confessing his far-out tale to reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti) in a dimly lit Chinese restaurant, John Dies At The End is about a sly but hostile takeover of the planet by beings from an alternative universe via the medium of a mysterious drug referred to as ‘soy sauce’, which enables its users to see and experience things normally outside of perception, but which has other altogether more dangerous qualities. Yeah. Dave is assisted in his quest by a rag-tag bunch of twenty-somethings, including the titular John (Rob Mayes), whose state of being is quite frankly up for debate throughout the film.
The young actors are scrappy enough, as befits a film of this size and scope. Chase Williamson, upon whom most of the work rides, has an Emile Hirsch quality that carries the film, though his peers manage little of note. Fortunately, a crackling script that aims to entertain above all more than makes up for any shortcomings. John Dies At The End knows what it is and plays to those strengths. So it’s quotable dialogue, off-the-wall scenarios and appropriately budgeted CG effects mixed in with practical ones. In the fine tradition of the B-movie not everything has to look good. It’s daft fantasy; you’re either going to go with it or you’re not.
Whether you go with it will depend on your propensity for this variety of crazy. For instance, in the early stretches Dave and John find themselves trapped in a basement with an inhospitable creature built out of reanimated meat when suddenly the door handle at the top of the stairs is transformed into a penis. Yep, into a penis. You read that correctly. Dave looks at this lolling phallus and says, “We’re never getting out of here”. It’s a schlocky, gonzo moment, and perhaps a good litmus test of whether this is for you. And whilst the movie doesn’t rely on toilet humour by any means, if you can enjoy the funny here, you’ll enjoy the funny elsewhere (which, generally speaking, is a grade or two smarter).
Yes, overall its a jumble of a movie, with plotting all over the place and the sense that sequences have been strung together loosely to accommodate one another, but one can’t help but feel that this is entirely intentional. Small pretext is enough to present this compilation of crazy scenarios. Like flipping channels where every station is playing a different episode of The Outer Limits. And if the ending is comparatively underwhelming, well, that’s likely due to the front end being so well loaded.
You can assign loftier aspirations to John Dies At The End if you want to. That it asks questions about the nature of truth and perception or what-not, but really, this is a rollercoaster ride out to elicit your enjoyment more than your contemplation. Phrases like ‘cult classic’ set my eyes rolling these days, they’re batted about so regularly as to become meaningless. Coscarelli’s whole modus operandi is ‘cult classic’. Just add this to the list.
Does John die at the end? I wouldn’t want to spoil any more surprises.
John Dies At The End is in selected UK cinemas from March.