Sunday, January 20, 2013

John Dies at the End (2012)

John Dies at the End is a rock 'n' roll good-time movie. It's like a stoner buddy comedy, but instead of smoking pot the characters inject a sentient hallucinogenic drug which can allow people to travel through time and to alternate dimensions. At times it seems like a non-stop montage of disgusting creatures and outrageous gore. I'd like to see it attain an Evil Dead 2 level of cult status.

The story is kind of double-narrated, in that it is framed as being told by David (Chase Williamson) to a journalist (Paul Giamatti), but David also has a near-constant inner monologue that Giamatti's character is not privvy to. The movie them throws us into the deep end with a sequence that it does not tell us actually takes place after the main story has finished, in which David and his buddy John (Rob Mayes) are called out to help a young woman who has a problem with her undead boyfriend. After encountering a bizarre creature that forms itself out of pieces of meat from a deep freezed, David and John realise that each of them see the girl who has called them as looking like a completely different person - the ramifications of which are only made clear towards the end of the movie.

We then flash back to their initial encounter with the sentient hallucinogenic drug, known colloquially as "Soy Sauce," and from there into a non-stop wild ride as they realise that they find themselves in the position of having to save the world, without yet knowing that they are saving it from.

Part of what makes John Dies at the End work so well is the obvious glee it takes in its own inventiveness. It's a frantic cavalcade of bizarre and twisted ideas piled precariously on top of each other, cackling madly as it goes, and yet even throwaway bits turn out to have purpose; for example, even a small bit of dialogue about phantom limb syndrome early in the movie turns out to be important. Once you get your head around the non-linear and flashback-heavy structure - the filmmakers expect the audience to put the sequence of events together in their heads - the story holds together more coherently than I expected from the setup. I wouldn't say that it's tightly plotted - it's far too convoluted than that and quite a few loose ends are left hanging - but it's certainly not just random weirdness for its own sake.

John Dies at the End also benefits from a strong cast. Newcomers Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are great fun as David and John, and they're backed by a supporting cast of strong character actors, including Glynn Turman as a confused cop, the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm,  as a priest, skinny creature actor Doug Jones, Clancy Brown cast against type as a slick and charismatic spiritualist, and Paul Giamatti as the sceptical journalist listening to David's story.

Unfortunately, as ths cast summary shows, there are no strong female characters in John Dies at the End. I gather that the role of Amy (Fabianne Therese) was reduced considerably for the movie, and others were left out of the film version. Even Molly the dog (as the was called in the original book by David Wong) was changed from female to male (and now called Bark Lee). This is a consistent problem in writer/director Don Coscarelli's career; the only strong female lead in any of his work is Ellen in Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, a character carried over from Joe R. Lansdale's original story.

Despite this demerit, all in all this is a greatvehicle for Coscarelli's talents (he previously wrote & directed the Phantasm movies, Beastmaster, and Bubba Ho-Tep). Please make movies more frequently if you can, Mr. Coscarelli.

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