Freewheeling, gleefully meta sci-fi/horror/comedy John Dies at the End opens with a most appropriately gory allegory on the nature of reality. It functions as both wisdom and warning to the audience, but it’s disarmingly funny enough to appeal to those who would otherwise be deaf to its frequency. Cult favorite director Don Coscarelli knows which way to twist the knobs and navigate through the static of mindfuckery that follows.
Adapted from Jason Pargin’s (under the nom de plume David Wong) web-serial-turned novel, we meet author surrogate Dave Wong (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) as they’ve already begun flexing some established paranormal cred in a Ghostbusters-ish partnership. (SPOILER ALERT: One of these affable louts may or may not die.) Paul Giamatti plays a skeptical journalist (and loose framing device for the fragmented tale) who, in interviewing Dave, becomes slowly drawn in to Dave’s story of inter-dimensional invasion, a talking dog, a seriously phantom limb, and a bratwurst with a direct phone line to the dead.
Like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, Coscarelli’s film functions as affectionate homage to the horror material from which it draws its inspiration. For example, the “truth” of the oncoming invasion is known only to those who shoot up the mysterious drug, “Soy Sauce,” a nice tip of the thematic hat to John Carpenter’s They Live. (Williamson and Giamatti meet at a restaurant called “They China,” for God’s sake—and the attentive cinephile will catch allusions to Big Trouble in Little China, not surprisingly). A couple of Sam Raimi’s signature moves are tossed in for good measure, just in case a future of late night viewing is ever in question. Punchy dialog and wryly delivered one-liners prove fitting company for the cascade of references even as the narrative plummets down the rabbit hole.
Ultimately, some minor hiccups in pacing in the second act—following the sawed-off shotgun blast of enjoyment that is the first—and a few undigestable lumps of exposition distract a bit (though mainly in hindsight). But such weaknesses are easily forgiven thanks to the very funny turn by Clancy Brown (the Kurgan himself!), as an Amazing Kreskin-type whose celebrity is merely a front for his real abilities. A shoestring-budgeted grab bag of CGI and traditional creature effects solidify the film’s indie charm, demonstrating an overall technical effort that exhibits great confidence in the fun it’s having. Given the way John Dies at the End is so unmistakably built for a baked in, very loyal kind of audience, it’s also one that will doubtlessly benefit from multiple viewings.
Defiantly strange, the makers of John Dies at the End can be content in the knowledge it’s destined to become a cult classic, beloved by the sci-fi/horror gang, as well as midnight tokers. (Stay tuned as today’s critical naysayers whitewash—if not out and out ret-con—their initial opinions when that happens.) For everyone else, John Dies at the End should serve as a perfect addition to their Halloween movie marathon.
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writers: Don Coscarelli, David Wong
Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti
Release Date: Dec. 27 (VOD); Jan. 25, 2013 (limited)