Don Coscarelli’s “John Dies At The End” begins with a fantastic opening shot.
The camera glides across a snow-crested lawn to reveal, just in the distance, a horrible murder is taking place.
As we come ever closer to a man hitting another repeatedly with an axe, the narration and tone declare immediately that, despite the imagery, this is a comedy. The result of the axe murder and the immediate flashback to both the particulars of the victim and the origin of the axe, is hilarious and horrifying, in that EC Comics way.
We lean into the macabre absurdity and, in a matter of seconds, go full tilt into a rabbit hole of surreal wonders.
Newcomer Chase Williamson stars as David, who learns that something is horribly wrong with his best friend John (Rob Mayes). As David explains to a reporter (Paul Giamatti) over a meal in an empty Chinese restaurant, a substance called “soy sauce” causes its victims to hallucinate and genuinely obtain supernatural powers after injected.
David and John’s encounter with an ex-girlfriend results in the appearance of a monster made out of meat products, a doorknob that turns into a penis and a phone call from a medium (Clancy Brown) who performs a sort-of exorcism over the phone and makes it all go away. All of this transpires over the film’s breathless first 10 minutes.
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One way to describe this is Chuck Palahniuk crossed with H.P. Lovecraft, as interpreted by Sam Raimi. However you whittle it down (and really, it can’t be summed up neatly, which is a part of its design), this is Coscarelli’s masterpiece.
Based on the web series that was later a published novel by David Wong, this is a pretty-faithful adaptation, reflecting Wong’s bursting-at-the-seams pop culture references and gonzo plot twists. Boasting humor both juvenile and too-smart-for-the-room, it’s all very “Buckaroo Banzai,” which I mean as the highest form of praise.
This is the kind of movie that name drops Franz Kafka, “Space Ghost” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” but also bothers to quote “New Jack City.” A huge asset is the pacing, as Coscarelli and his editor Donald Milne keep it moving; you’ll get dizzy from the film’s warped imagination.
“John Dies At The End” is so loopy on a scene-to-scene basis, you may feel like you’re high as you watch it. This is apropos, as David’s narration and character arc involve grasping the effects of the “soy sauce.”
His first scene with John also suggests that we’re not seeing the first time David has discovered his friend OD’ing and having to take him to the hospital. The subtext is that we’re viewing this universe and David’s perspective through a drug-addled mindset. While this isn’t a controlled, literate work like David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch,” they are similar in their hallucinatory perspective.
There’s pretty good CGI, a fittingly brooding score by Brian Tyler and imaginative low budget filmmaking from Coscarelli, whose former B-movie rep has deservedly been appraised into a respected cult following.
Coscarelli’s screenplay scratches at the edge of what’s possible in each scene, until another batty notion takes center stage. With its unreliable protagonist and POV maintaining total unpredictability, you’re along for the ride and taking in the cracked delights as they zoom by.
This is superior to Coscarelli’s admirable but limited “Bubba Ho-Tep,” which had wonderful performances to center it but was overly confined by its setting and budget.
FAST FACT: “John Dies at the End” brought in a mere $141,951 during its blink and you missed it theatrical run.
While reportedly made for less than $! million, “John Dies at the End” feels bigger, grander and goofier. Witness the tasteless logic of how one opens a “ghost door.” Or how John demonstrates the power of the “soy sauce” by instructing David to use a hot dog as a cell phone.
Or how Barkley the Dog become a key supporting character. Or how another character exits the film with his eyes exploding.
While possessing the random feel of “Men in Black” but devoid of mainstream formula, it exacts a bro-mantic comedy tone, submerges it into a feast of paranormal logic and a whirl of genre possibilities.
Sometimes it’s too glib and self consciously dumb to invest in (needless to say, it will be too much for some and the unprepared will bail before the opening titles pop up).
At its best, it approaches and surpasses the same bottomless pit of ghoulish creativity that super-charged “The Cabin in the Woods.”
Williamson and Mayes are both unknowns, scrappy in their acting abilities but demonstrate crack comic timing; despite the untested leads, they’re both as funny and fearless as the roles demand. Giamatti (who also co-produced and was once attached to an unmade “Bubba Ho-Tep” sequel) is note-perfect and exactly the audience surrogate the film needs.
The late Angus Scrimm (the iconic Tall Man of Coscarelli’s signature “Phantasm” films) offers a great, one-scene cameo. Best of all is Glynn Turman (veteran of both “Cooley High” and “Gremlins”), giving line deliveries that have a Christopher Walken-esque way of dancing as they dribble out of his mouth.
All of Coscarelli’s films (even the medium-budgeted “Phantasm II” and the MGM-released, basic-cable staple “The Beastmaster“) have a showmanship, affection for the genre and down and dirty inventiveness.
His best films have a charm that soulless studio films couldn’t touch. While the midnight movie courting hipness of “John Dies At The End” is undeniable, this is one of the few recent cult movies that earns its nocturnal show times and the resulting, passionate cult fandom.