Directed by Don Coscarelli
Featuring Paul Giamatti, Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Glynn Turman
How would I succinctly pitch John Dies at the End? I think it’s kind of like if Charlie Kaufman fused Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then got it directed by Spike Jonze.
Not having read the hugely popular book upon which it’s based, I can’t speak on its faithfulness to the source material, but the film has a twisty and unpredictable plot, and an abundance of bonkers energy to it. Unfortunately it’s only intermittently entertaining and just a little too weird to connect with a wide audience.
Helmed by cult horror fave Don Coscarelli (who did the similarly quirky but widely adored Bubba Ho Tep, not to mention Phantasm), the film starts off with one strongest and funniest pre-credit sequences I’ve seen in a horror film in a long time, mixing graphic violence and deadpan humor in a downright delectable way that in itself bumps the film’s grade up half a star. The humor keeps right up through the introduction of Dave Wong (Chase Williamson) – no, he’s not Asian, but says he took up the fake name to hide since Wong is the most common last name in the world – and Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a cynical journalist who meets him to discuss, among other things, a new substance known as “soy sauce.” Not the salty condiment we know and love, this soy sauce is a new, highly potent street drug that gives its users psychic abilities and opens doors to other dimensions full of world domination-seeking aliens.
To try to explain the plot further in a way that makes sense to someone who hasn’t seen it would be like trying to unravel a pretzel without breaking it. We find that Dave and his friend John (Rob Mayes) – whose titular demise we wait patiently for – initially act as paranormal investigators, and have an early run in with a monster made entirely from different cuts of raw meat that emerge from the freezer. If that, right there, amuses you, then it’s a good bet you’ll enjoy this film. From there they encounter various offbeat characters, such as grizzled police detective Appleton (Glynn Turman), as well as a badass dog, flying mustaches, and a one-eyed amorphous blob with a penchant for gay jokes.
I will say the acting is great, and much better than a film with this kind of story might have had in the hands of another filmmaker. Williamson (in an impressive feature debut) and Mayes have a great chemistry as the unlikely heroes. Giamatti is one of my favorite actors, and I’d watch him in a feature-length tampon commercial. Here, he brings a low key energy to his role as the skeptic reporter. Everyone else, including Turman and Clancy Brown, is solid, and plays the material straight despite the lunacy of the situations.
It’s a shame that the film is, at times, a little too convoluted for its own good. There were just a few too many moments where I was left scratching my head, wondering if I’d missed something. And while the film’s energy wanes from time to time, it’s certainly inventive and never boring. I was entertained overall, and am sure most die-hard genre and Coscarelli fans will be too.