John Dies at the End (United States, 2012)

January 24, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
John Dies at the End Poster

John Dies at the End is problematical. It's an attempt by director Don Coscarelli to adapt a book that has a fanatical following but has often been described as "unfilmable." The end result has garnered mixed reactions from those who love David Wong's story while leaving the uninitiated understandably baffled. Coscarelli's screenplay introduces an abundance of intriguing concepts but never goes very far with any of them. The characters are paper thin and the special effects are laughably bad. There are some pretty good laughs but the overall experience offers less than the satisfying feeling one gets from a complete production. I was never bored but neither was I invested in the narrative. The plot is essentially a string of quirky scenes stitched together using a non-linear chronology where seemingly every "tight spot" is resolved by the use of a deus ex machina.

The tale is told from the perspective of a character, Dave Wong (Chase Williamson), who is under the influence of a drug dubbed "Soy Sauce." It's a black substance that, once in a person's system, gives him a perspective of the reality underlying what everyone else sees. It's a little like taking one of those pills in The Matrix. Sort of. Not really. Actually, a lot of the movie feels like David Cronenberg when he's misfiring. It's all very weird and visually interesting but not rewarding. One senses that members of the audience under the influence of a controlled substance (not necessarily a black one) will get more out of John Dies at the End than the rest of us.

Dave and his best friend, John (Rob Mayes), who may or may not actually die at the end, are on a mission to keep Earth from being invaded by demonic creatures from another dimension. They're a little like The Blues Brothers on a mission from God. Sort of. Not really. They do some time travel. A dog gets behind the wheel of a car. A doorknob turns into a rubber penis. A guy's eyeballs explode. A man's mustache takes flight and flitters around a room. A character uses a hot dog as a cell phone. And that's just scratching the surface. To have a chance at appreciating what John Dies at the End is offering, reading the webserial-turned-book may be mandatory. The movie doesn't seem like it was designed as a stand-alone product.

The special effects are so unbelievably awful that one gets the sense they were intended to be that way. They're a little like R-rated old school Doctor Who effects. Sort of. Really. This is the kind of cheesiness one embraces as a filmmaker if it fits into the tone and John Dies at the End is so off-kilter that the copious fake gore (which includes an animated sequence) doesn't damage its credibility. By making John Dies at the End, Coscarelli dodges any possible charges of "playing it safe," but what else would one reasonably from the man behind Bubba Ho-Tep, a yarn about zombies invading a nursing home where Elvis is hiding out?

For his leads, Coscarelli has gone with a pair of young, relatively unknown actors whose performances are adequate for the material. Chase Williamson gives us a low-key, reluctant hero who spends most of the movie flummoxed by the bizarre things happening around him. Rob Mayes is his antithesis, making John a brash kick-ass kind of guy who only hesitates when the option to push ahead recklessly has been taken off the table. There are a couple of notable performers in supporting roles. Paul Giamatti, who gets an executive producer credit, plays the journalist to whom Dave tells his story (this is used as a loose framing device). Clancy Brown, with tongue embedded in cheek, is Marconi, a TV self-help guru who possesses mystical powers that can dismantle a made-from-freezer-meat-scraps monster over the telephone.

This movie isn't just off the mainstream road; it's off the game trail that leads to the path that meanders around until it gets to the rutted dirt track that eventually arrives at that road. It's one of those films that might as well be announced with the words "cult classic" emblazoned on the marquee. It's an interesting failure that's almost worth seeing for that reason alone. Kind of. Not really.

John Dies at the End (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2013-01-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1