Aug 06 2013
Ripped from the pages of a novel by Cracked.com contributer David Wong — a novel I haven’t read, by the way — and put onscreen by cult film alumnus Don Coscarelli, John Dies at the End is undoubtedly one of the year’s most distinctive, bizarre entries.
I won’t bother summarizing JDATE (great acronym, btw), as it’s the sort of thing that defies casual description. The story ostensibly revolves around a regular guy who starts seeing demonic… things… after accidentally taking a drug called soy sauce, but it quickly takes a left turn into something even stranger. And then another. And another.
The plot doesn’t so much meander as explode, with subplots, characters, ideas and setpieces whizzing in every direction from the first shot to the last. I’ve seen reviews that try to articulate the specifics, but they invariably wind up spoiling a lot of the fun that comes from simply watching the madness unfold.
I’ll do my best not to be one of those people. More after the jump…
Most genre fiction tends to have a core conceit that it explores (a secret agency covering up aliens, a mysterious mist fraught with monster). Rarely do movies bother mixing and matching concepts; in fact, it’s often discouraged to have, say, a Dracula story where Dracula gets abducted by aliens.
Nobody bothered to tell John Dies at the End this. Here’s a movie that happily mixes Lovecraftian/Stephen King horror with drug-fueled, K. Dick-esque sci-fi. I’ve also heard Grant Morrison quoted as a touchstone. And I could keep going. The point is that JDATE takes the “kitchen sink” approach to its worldbuilding in truly delirious fashion.
I’d say that it makes a surprising amount of sense, except it doesn’t. But that’s part of the appeal.
Don’t let me make it sound like the movie is a truly random assortment. Though I’m not sure JDATE sticks all the landings, there’s definitely a method to its madness.
Let me try to articulate a sample: In the opening scene, a guy named Dave pontificates on a thought experiment featuring a hatchet. To make a long story short, he beheads a frozen corpse with a hatchet (to make sure it doesn’t come back), then over time has to replace the hatchet’s handle and head (the corpse isn’t his only problem). When the corpse comes back (its head now laced onto its neck), Dave is confronted with a conundrum: Is he using the same hatchet as the first time?
The sequence itself is a contemporary geek repackaging of Theseus’s paradox, which in its most famous rendition wonders whether a ship that has been repaired and restructured until none of the original parts are left is, in fact, the same ship.
People have been asking this question, more or less, for centuries. John Dies at the End never returns to the scenario or finds a solution to the hatchet question. In general, JDATE doesn’t necessarily come up with many novel questions or answers, but it does have a ball finding new, weird, and unexpected ways to articulate some of the old ones.
Like I mentioned, Don Coscarelli directed the flick. You may not recognize his name, but his were the talents behind cult classics Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series. I haven’t seen the Phantasm movies, but JDATE possesses the same late-night appeal as Bubba Ho-Tep, though it lacks that movie’s compelling lead characters.
Not that the characters are bad, per se. They’re just shallow and mostly there so the story can exist. Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are great as the two leads, while Paul Giamatti has a lot of fun in a crucial supporting role. Other recognizable (and unrecognizable) faces pop up here and there, in parts that are always fun but rarely demanding. But who’s going to complain about seeing Doug Jones and Clancy Brown pop up in a movie? Not me, that’s for sure.
One thing that must be praised, acting wise, is the chemistry between the two leads. Neither delivers a truly noteworthy performance, but their onscreen friendship has the ring of truth to it. Even in the midst of the wall-to-wall zaniness they’re dealing with, their interactions feel real and engaging.
As solid as the acting is, you could make a case that the real star of the show is the world itself. John Dies at the End has a LOT going on, and watching an indie-budget movie attempt to realize all of it is entertaining as hell. The filmmakers bring the universe of JDATE to life through a fun assortment of low-cost visual effects; an engaging mix of goopy practical stuff and low-rent CGI. Despite neither being 100% convincing in the moment, both work to give the movie a rebellious, made-in-a-garage vibe that fits its anything-goes spirit.
Oh, you know what a good comparison for John Dies at the End might be? Repo Man. It’s not quite the same, but I wound up watching them in close proximity to each other and was surprised at some of the similarities I was noticing. Also, Repo Man rules. Watch that one, too.
Quick confession: one of the things I’ve been sorta dancing around while praising this movie’s virtues is that it didn’t completely click for me, in the end. Frankly, I’m not its target audience — geek-chic things like Cthulu references don’t catch my attention — and it has a few more ideas than it can safely handle.
I feel obliged to mention that. I don’t want to advertise the movie as an unmitigated success. On the other hand, I also think you should completely ignore these past two paragraphs, because this is the kind of movie that isn’t really worth picking at.
John Dies at the End screams “cult classic.” It’s distinctive. Fun. Savvy. It’s made by people who clearly enjoy doing this sort of thing, and who are don’t balk at mixing moods, genres, and cheap laughs with 15-dollar words.
Not everybody will be on its wavelength, but I suspect those who are will cherish it and make their friends come over next time they put it on. Check it out.
Or, if you already have, sound off in the comments and tell me what you thought!
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