(2012) Written and Directed by Don Coscarelli; Based on the novel by David Wong; Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown and Glynn Turman;
Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
“Do the bees know that they make the honey for you, or do they work tirelessly because they think it is their own choice?” – Roger North (Doug Jones)
If a movie had ever been custom-tailored for the cult movie crowd, John Dies at the End would be it. Too esoteric and unconventional for the multiplex set, it was never destined for mass acceptance. Judging by the ubiquitous banner ads that appeared on various movie websites over the past several months, John Dies at the End was aimed squarely at audiences that would flock to the film, based solely on its geek credentials. Starting with a pay-per-view release that prefaced its theatrical release, the film didn’t exactly set the world on fire, with its tepid reviews and poor box office showing. But Don Coscarelli has a built-in audience, myself included, who find his movies a welcome respite from the usual big-budget, story-by-committee dreck that the Hollywood blockbuster factory normally turns out.
Combining elements of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with The Stuff, John Dies at the End concerns a mysterious, addictive substance, known as Soy Sauce, which heightens senses and opens doors to parallel worlds. Its effects on users is permanent, leaving them with the ability to perceive what has remained shrouded from the rest of the world. Writer/director Coscarelli explored similar themes in his Phantasm series, which frequently blurred the line between reality and fantasy.
Coscarelli’s script, based on David Wong’s (aka: Cracked contributor Jason Pargin) hallucinatory novel of the same name, seems underdeveloped, with weak lead characterizations and a lack of focus. The protagonists, millennial slackers Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) make Bill and Ted seem nuanced by comparison. Williamson and Mayes do the best they can with their underwritten characters. Neither character possesses a distinct personality; both appear more or less interchangeable. They simply drift from one predicament to another, manipulated by the whims of the otherworldly Soy Sauce. The clever dialogue, peppered throughout the film, is clearly the script’s greatest asset.
Another high point is the excellent character actor work. Glynn Turman stands out in a small but memorable role as the no-nonsense Detective Lawrence Appleton, who’s determined to eradicate the Soy Sauce and its detrimental effects. Paul Giamatti (who shared executive producer credits with Coscarelli’s father Dac and Daniel Carey) is also noteworthy, as skeptical feature reporter Arnie. And be sure to watch for a nice little cameo by Coscarelli regular Angus Scrimm as Father Shellnut.
After watching John Dies at the End, I was left with the impression that Coscarelli either didn’t go far enough or should have shown a little more restraint. I tend to favor the second assertion. The film suffers in comparison to Coscarelli’s previous feature, Bubba Ho-Tep, which successfully walked the line between outlandish and poignant. Even with its wild conspiracy theories and absurd premise, Bubba Ho-Tep managed to keep everything together, thanks to a clarity of vision and adhering to its own set of rules. The rules, if they exist in John Dies at the End, do not seem to apply. Random stuff happens frequently, and nothing seems connected. Because of the film’s dissociative, sporadic nature, it’s more about the parts than the whole. There are some undeniably fun bits trapped within this jumbled mess. It’s hard not to laugh when David eschews his cellphone, in favor of a bratwurst, to speak to his recently deceased friend John. While the climax is a little ho-hum, I have to give the film points for the final scene, and the ironic payoff.
Misgivings aside, it’s virtually impossible for me to dislike John Dies at the End. Coscarelli shot for the stars, even if he barely made it out of the clouds. He made a sincere effort to show us something that hadn’t been seen, throwing as much weird shit at the screen as possible and seeing what stuck. Yes, the film is wildly inconsistent, but that describes Coscarelli’s filmography. His overall body of work, while rough around the edges, frequently delivers more than we get from lesser directors with bigger budgets. Even if the final results are a trifle underwhelming, it’s a crazy enough ride, well worth your time. Unlike its main characters, however, don’t expect John Dies at the End to change your life.