By Brian Lafferty
February 15, 2013 (San Diego) – Sometimes moviegoing is a leap of faith. One question I always dread answering is, “Do you recommend such-and-such film?” I'm not in the business of recommendations. Maybe I was in 2010, but my philosophy on film criticism has evolved and will continue to evolve. My critical approach is to evaluate and write about the elements of the film, my personal reaction to it, and whether the film succeeds or doesn't. I prefer to stimulate interest and discussion rather than tell you whether you will or won’t like a movie. (Personally, I would find it presumptuous for someone who doesn’t know my tastes to tell me I’d like a film, so why would I do the same to you?) I leave it up to you to decide if you should spend your money, but at least you'll be well informed and have an idea of what to expect.
I say all this because John Dies at the End is a film that defies the recommendation approach. Some movies aren't as simple as black and white. John Dies at the End bursts with genius in many places. As writer and director Don Coscarelli's screenplay flooded the screen with bizarre images and dark offbeat humor, I waited and waited for it all to unify into a whole as genius as its parts. Unfortunately, it didn't happen, but this lack of cohesion doesn't diminish the emotional impact of these surreal and grotesque "what the" moments.
Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) are two young slackers. John is introduced to a drug called "Soy Sauce" that literally takes anyone who takes it on a “trip” through time and other dimensions. While under the influence, Dave learns that citizens of a parallel universe overcome by giant spider-like creatures want to invade this one. It's up to these two guys and a dog to save it.
The problem I have with most horror comedies is that the writers and directors tend to tip them heavily in one direction over the other. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil was more funny than scary. Same with Cabin in the Woods. The inverse was true of Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. I liked all three immensely, but I felt as well-written and as terrifically executed as they were, something was missing in them. John Dies at the End is one of the few I've seen that gets it right, balancing the scares and laughs equally. Half the time it's simultaneous. The big spiders were scary as heck, but after I jumped and looked away from the screen, my next reflex was to giggle.
The screenplay, adapted from the David Wong novel, has a dark and grotesque sense of humor. The first taste of this comes as Dave describes to reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti) how he and John encountered a monster that manifested itself in humanoid form using a freezerful of ribs, sausages and other meats as a body, with a Thanksgiving turkey as a head. As the body was constructed piece of meat by piece of meat, my reaction was “Huh?” In finished form, it’s weird and gross, unappetizing for even the most insatiable carnivore. My nose wrinkled before laughing. Then the guys try to escape, but in the film’s funniest moment, the door handle changes into – drumroll please – a penis.
That’s just one of many moments of greatness. But that’s what all the film is. That isn’t to say there’s no main story. There is, but on a first time viewing it doesn’t make enough sense and it required me to reconstruct it the best I could in my head. Even at the denouement, it doesn’t wrap everything up as tidily as it should have.
The movie’s sluggish energy seems by design, reflecting the slacker lives these two men lead and the drugs they take. This weary energy (or what little there is of it) and nonchalance works both for and against it. On one hand, it makes the grotesque and darkly humorous situations even more offbeat. At the same time, it doesn’t mesh well with the energy that flows from the film’s genius (for lack of a better word) moments of creativity and humor. Sometimes it catches up, other times it doesn’t.
John Dies at the End was originally set to open at the Ken Cinema, which is known for its niche films. Instead, the 2013 Academy Award-nominated shorts opens there today and John Dies at the End runs at the Landmark Hillcrest. It would have certainly fit in with the Ken’s penchant for exhibiting cult films in the making, a life it seems destined for. Bruce Campbell, in his autobiography If Chins Could Kill, defined a mainstream film as “100,000 people seeing a single film ten times” and a cult film as “Ten people seeing a single film 100,000 times.” I in all likelihood won’t revisit John Dies at the End again, but at least I got a lot out of it. Just not enough.
John Dies at the End is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest.
A Magnet Releasing release. Director: Don Coscarelli. Screenplay: Don Coscarelli, based on the story by David Wong. Original Music: Brian Tyler. Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis. Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, and Glynn Turman. Running Time: 99 minutes. Rated R.
Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.