John Dies At The End

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/07/12 07:37:20

"No spoilers."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: According to the post-film Q&A (and others I've talked to), "John Dies at the End" is a cult novel that barely had time to gain a reputation as unfilmable before going before the cameras. Director and screenwriter Don Coscarelli dealt with this by (mostly) sticking to the (relatively) linear first third of the book, but make no mistake - this is still quite the odd story, and the telling is nearly as peculiar.

David Wong (Chase Williamson) and his friend John (Rob Mayes) may seem like nothing more than slackers, but they're actually the go-to guys for handling the frequent incursions of the paranormal on their small Illinois town. How did they get started? Well, as as Dave tells reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti), there was this guy (Tai Bennett) handing out this drug called "the soy sauce", which fundamentally alters one's perception of space and time in a way that others only claim to. The morning after, everybody who took it is either missing or dead, and Dave has to figure out what's going on while avoiding a detective (Glynn Turman) and fielding weird telephone calls from John, when all he really wants to do is get together with Amy (Fabianne therese), the cute girl looking for the dog that turned up next to his car..

That description makes John sound almost sane, like an action movie with a vaguely science-fictional premise. It's not. It starts out weird and piles new types of strangeness on at points when other movies might be trying to simplify things, leaving large chunks unexplained and papering over the rest with something akin to "hey, the soy sauce, man". Somehow, though, it holds together - Coscarelli has extracted a plot that follows something akin to internal logic without often getting bogged down. He does occasionally drop a little too much of the book in verbatim, although it's hard to blame him - the narration sounds like the sort of text that would be great fun to read.

Give him credit, though, in that he almost never uses that as a substitute for actually showing weird stuff. Coscarelli and company don't have a huge amount of money at their disposal, but they manage to get a fair amount of stuntwork, CGI, and practical effects in, even including a deliciously grotesque animated sequence. The resources are clearly being stretched a little, but the somewhat kitschy effects work; there's an unspoken covenant that they could afford a few great bits or a lot of decent bits, and having the movie be fantastical through-and-through beat it having one great scene. Besides, the characters are all on drugs, right? Realistic isn't wholly necessary in a movie from that perspective.

Not that the cast goes overboard to imply that everybody is just tripping. Chase Williamson is fine as Dave, but it does sometimes feel like one of those attempts at an everyman character that could stand to be a little more individual. Rob Mayes gets a more freewheeling part as John, and seems to have more fun with it. Paul Giamatti is having fun too, digging into his extended cameo with even more gusto than usual, though not going so far over the top as Clancy Brown (playing a fellow occult specialist with a goofy accent). Glynn Turman winds up being a secret weapon as Detective Appleton, ably taking a pretty standard B-movie cop role and running with it; his appearances become downright riveting as the movie goes on.

That perhaps shouldn't be a surprise; for a guy who has spent most of his career on the fringes, Don Coscarelli knows his stuff as well as any mainstream filmmaker. As a writer, he does an amazing job of retaining the madness that the story is meant to evoke while letting the audience have something to hold on to; as a producer, he makes sure that there are good people involved; and as a director and editor, he shows a knack for getting the best out of people rather than the worst. His last film, Bubba Ho-Tep, also got something clever out of an out-there concept, and while John Dies at the End does not quite aim as high, it winds up much better than an examination of its elements would suggest.

Of course, I suspect some fans of the book may have issues with the things that have been left out and changed, right down to the dog's name (rather than focusing on how Bark Lee is a pretty cool canine); that's the nature of fans. Or maybe not; maybe they'll decide that this is the sweet spot between how weird the source material is and what sort of budget and talent you can get for an odd movie. The rest of us don't have to worry about that; we can just recognize "John Dies at the End" as an entertaining slice of strange that works better than it has any right to.

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