4 / 5 stars
If you like your horror-comedies with drug-induced delusion, disjointed humor (and disjointed body parts), and villains made of reconstituted frozen meat, then John Dies at the End is your cult movie of the year. Writer-director Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm) doesn’t just let his freak flag fly; he lights it on fire, pees on it, and beats it with a zombie arm. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
This fantastically kitschy apocalyptic thriller is adapted from the novel by David Wong
(code name for cracked.com editor Jason Pargin), who also happens to be the story’s main character, a non-Asian dude telling his story to a reporter (Paul Giamatti) in a Chinese restaurant. In flashback, we learn of the creepy plight of David (newcomer Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), two semi-slackers who’ve run into a mind-blowingly dangerous drug nicknamed “Soy Sauce,” which has a few side effects: It moves you through alternate realities, has you dreaming of things that haven’t happened yet and can cause some majorly creative freakouts. And it has either unveiled or started (tough to tell) a battle with some sort of underworld, and the end of humanity.
Whew. Nearly every moment of John Dies at the End (also known as “JDatE”) emerges from the deep recesses of Wong and Coscarelli’s minds, where George Romero, the Evil Dead series and Richard Kelly’s brain are having cheap sex, and everyone is on laughing gas. This movie is not the baby that would result. It’s the monster that would eat that baby.
As David tells his story, with Williamson providing the perfect film noir monotone voiceover, we relive his unlikely tale: how he came upon “soy sauce,” how it affected his pal John, the exploding bodies, the creepy creatures. The fun is that John Dies at the End is a roundhouse of creativity, a legitimately surreal slice of cinema that always works hard to sustain suspense and keep the audience shrieking. Many films of the genre will use some of the same tricks, but focus on laughs; here, veteran Coscarelli successfully emphasizes the horror, letting the weirdness of it all soak in to provide the humor. When David talks to John using a bratwurst instead of a phone, it’s classically funny (with a banana is one of the oldest jokes in the book, right?), but we’re still intrigued by what the hell is actually going on there.
The buddies, their super dog, and the girl with the missing hand (Fabianne Therese) eventually travel through an abandoned mall – a nod to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – to encounter the universe’s evil, and Coscarelli plays up the popcorn all the way. Both inventive and stupid, the scene feels like an update from the 1980 Flash Gordon, a campy climax with just barely enough bad lighting for us to know it’s green-screened. It’s not as satisfying as the film’s earlier setpieces, but the style fits perfectly.
We don’t need a hallucinogen to see into the future and imagine a continuing David-and-John series. John Dies at the End is destined to become a home-video hit (it nails all the right notes), and Williamson and Mayes, once they get their footing here, are likable leads, full of attitude and wit. David and John could move through time portals, deal with evil, tell knob jokes and be on their way. A sci-fi hip Hope and Crosby. The real David Wong has already written a sequel, “This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It.”
Oh, and as for John’s plight in the film, he doesn’t really die at the end. It’s more like the middle. Sort of.