“What in the name of Elvis is going on?”
The H-Bomb: Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) were just a couple of typical, twenty-something slackers when they came upon a new mind altering drug called Soy Sauce. A pitch black goo with hair growing out of it, Soy Sauce can â€śopen doors to other worldsâ€ť by giving its users an array of psychic powers, as well as making them able to see things normal people cannot… like strange, otherworldly creatures. Other side effects of the Sauce include turning sausages into cellphones and doorknobs into dicks… but let’s not get into that.
Before Dave and John can fully wrap their tiny minds around the new powers this black gunk has given them, they find themselves in the middle of an outrageous plot that involves a full-on invasion of Earth by beings from an alternate dimension. Now, our un-dynamic duo, with their recently obtained extra-sensory abilities, find themselves in the most unenviable position of being the only ones who can stop it. You may want to step back, because shit is about to get freaky.
I kept the plot synopsis for John Dies at the End deliberately general, because if I tried to go into any real detail describing this thing, I would, in all likelihood, only confuse you. Sure, I could tell you about the demonic monster assembled from meat products, or the flying mustache bat creature, but you really need to see it for yourself for any of it to make even an iota of sense.
Based on a book by David Wong, John Dies at the End is brought to us by screenwriter/director Don Coscarelli, who has dabbled in the extreme abnormal in the past with his Phantasm films (of which there are four), as well as his goofy, but irresistible cult hit, Bubba Ho-Tep. As bizarre as those past flicks were, they ain’t got shit on this one. John Dies at the End is by far, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Coscarelli’s most all out bonkers film to date.
Imagine if someone were to drop Naked Lunch, Night of the Creeps, and any adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft into a blender and hit puree, this zany ass horror/sci-fi/comedy thing is what would probably come out. I don’t know how much of the material in here is Wong’s and how much is Coscarelli’s, but it seems like they both threw absolutely everything they could at the wall to see what would stick, and if something didn’t stick, they simply said, â€śFuck it. We’ll make it stick, every last bit of it. Even if we have to use fucking super glue, it shall stick. Logic be damned.â€ť This line of thinking has resulted in a genuine work of what-the-fuck cinema that even David Lynch would be proud of.
Granted, this is nowhere near as esoteric or confounding as a Lynch film, it’s still way the hell out there, and often makes no bloody sense whatsoever. But that’s fine, as it’s made clear from the off set that this takes place in a world where anything goes. Literally. We could call this lazy writing, an excuse for the author/filmmaker to just make any damn thing up as he goes, a way to give himself an easy out if he gets stuck story wise, and it probably is, but with a flick this wildly whacked out and unpredictable, not to mention this gruesomely fun, that I can let it slide.
What I can’t let slide, though, is the confusing beginning, a structurally jumbled mess of flashbacks and flash-forwards that’s all over the place, including a bit with a severed head and a broken axe that the film leaves hanging and never comes back to. Once it settles into its framing device with Dave telling his story to a reporter (Paul Giamatti, who also executive produced), all is well, but at first it comes off as scatter-shot and makes us feel a little lost as to where we are in the story.
While I’m complaining, I should also bring up that for a film this ambitious, and it gets pretty damn ambitious, it sports a very low budget, and at times it shows, particularly with the uneven special effects. When it sticks to practical effects, its all good, but when it goes the digital route, it’s like watching a computer game. There are some green screen shots in a cave that just reek of artificial cheese (seriously, is it that hard to film in an actual cave?). The most egregious of the lot, though, is when the film abruptly switches to animation in order to depict a large scale massacre. This, like Kill Bill Vol. 1, is the sort of flick where you can get away with that kind of thing, but the transition is jarring, and they obviously did it this way because they lacked the funds to do it practically.
But enough with my petty gripes, on to the cast, who have given me absolutely nothing to gripe about. Williamson, making his feature debut, plays Dave with just the right balance of sarcasm and bewilderment. We experience pretty much everything through his eyes, and he makes the character easy to relate to and pull for, despite the outrageous circumstances he finds himself in. Mayes, as the John of the title, makes this doofus stoner oddly endearing, even if he is a complete dunderhead. Giamatti brings some weight to the supporting cast as a reporter who isn’t what he seems, as does Clancy Brown, who is funny but underused as Marconi, a superstar televangelist/monster slayer. Fans of Phantasm are in for a particular treat, as a certain Tall Man makes a cameo as a demented priest.
All things considered, John Dies at the End may not be one of the best films of the past year, but it is certainly one of the most original, which should come as no surprise, as it is brought to us from the same director who, ten years ago, gave us an elderly Elvis Presley who is forced to do battle with a soul sucking Mummy in a Texas nursing home. While it doesn’t quite have the heart or charm of his Bubba Ho-Tep, John Dies at the End is every bit as absurdly entertaining, and Coscarelli does manage to somehow make it even more outrageous. On the heels of this, I am certainly curious to see what Coscarelli does next, I can only hope it doesn’t take him another ten years to do it.