Every few years, the stars align, and we get a new film from Don Coscarelli. The king of low budget horror’s latest film is based on the bat-shit insane novel from former Cracked.com writer David Wong, John Dies at the End. While the title of the book/film might include what some would consider spoilers, this is one movie that is not about what happens, but about how it happens. There aren’t many works of fiction that can be easily compared to John Dies at the End, short of Fear and Loathing and Las Vegas, if it were made by Sam Raimi in the late 80’s, fresh off of making Evil Dead 2.
Coscarelli has always done things on a minuscule budget, and John Dies at the End is no different. While I’ve read more than a few reviews that took issue with some of the visual effects looking cheap, I wasn’t bothered by them, I thought they fit the wacky tone of the film. The movie centers on Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), two slackers who are too busy partying to do anything productive. One of these nights turns into a life changing event for the duo, as they are introduced to a new drug called Soy Sauce by a mysterious Jamaican named Robert Marley.
While on Soy Sauce, Dave and John can communicate without speaking to each other, and things tend to get a little strange. Due to the fractured narrative of the film (and I assume, the book) certain events early in the film only make more sense at the end of the film, but some events never fully make sense, and that’s the way they are intended to be. The practical f/x on display are great, the Meat Monster early in the film is one of the craziest, coolest creatures I’ve ever seen on the screen.
While Dave and John set out to explore their new “powers” while on Soy Sauce to investigate weird happenings, Dave is explaining these events to a sensational reporter (Paul Giamatti) who is just trying to figure out what exactly Dave is talking about. Glynn Turman plays a dogged detective who has become ensnared in the web of Soy Sauce weirdness, but is determined to make sense of it all, even if it kills him.
The entire film is so off-kilter that it feels like a crazy drug trip the entire runtime, which isn’t always a good thing. The first half’s pulsing pace gets mired down as the second half gets too caught up in trying to explain itself. The acting is good all around, Giamatti soars as always, but the real finds here are Mayes and Williamson as John and Dave. I’ve also seen some complaints about Williamson’s acting as Dave, but I thought it was a brilliant performance as an off-kilter, one step behind slacker, which could easily be misconstrued as a bad performance. John (Mayes) is the real joy here though, he plays the character with a certain zest that is a wink and a nod to the style of film it is, without being cheesy.
Ultimately, the second half of the film may slog the whole thing down, but the movie is a great set up for something more. While I’m not sure the low budget film will inspire any sequels (or ideally, an episodic TV show) that’s where the characters would thrive best, with further adventures in the same weird world. For now, a fun movie, full of great F/X and a crazy story, but not an instant classic. Still, I’ll be watching it a few more times in the future.