As much as I bemoan the mediocrity and mundanity of recent films, the fact is we’ve recently seen some watershed moments in oddball cinema. Films like COSMOPOLIS, HOLY MOTORS and DUST UP are proof of this. It’s as if filmmakers (and more importantly, film backers) greeted 2012 by saying “What the hell? The Mayans have already fucked us, so we may as well let our freak flag fly.” And whether or not you consider JOHN DIES AT THE END to be a 2012 or 2013 film, the fact remains that it continues this tradition and may be one of the strangest in the lot.
JOHN DIES AT THE END is based upon the novel by David Wong (a pseudonym for Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin). In this story however, Wong is not a guy who posts hilarious lists of things that shouldn’t fit in lists but somehow do and damn how does he do that anyway? No, here is a guy who fights ghosts, demons and inter-dimensional invaders with his good friend, John. But that’s getting ahead of the matter. As he tells a journalist (Paul Giamatti, proving once again that he’s one of the coolest character actors in existence), he needs to start from the beginning.
Without giving away too much, let’s just say that David and John are two twentysomethings who get caught up in a crazy series of events when they are exposed to a drug nicknamed “soy sauce.” Of course, it isn’t a standard drug anymore than it’s actually soy sauce. This stuff is alive. It sharpens the senses so that time loses its meaning, minds can be read and monsters can be seen for what they really are. John exposes himself to it willingly, whereas David is sucked into its web while trying to save John from what looks like an overdose of psychotropics.
And… golly gee wilikers, what else can I really tell you about JOHN DIES AT THE END that won’t either take up several pages or provide too many spoilers for you? I can tell you that it’s a film where nothing is what it seems, please forgive the cliché. Somewhere along the way, we encounter an amputee who is the most mundane thing in the film. There’s a detective who seems to be experiencing his own complex parallel storyline, one which we are purposely never permitted to see. There are inter-dimensional parasites and Lovecraftian beasties. There are misguided cults that humorously and coolly describe their utopian society which seems like a hell more terrifying than anything Dante Alighieri or Clive Barker ever dreamed up. I can tell you that heroes pop up in the most unexpected of places which is good since monsters are popping up at least twice as often. I can tell you it’s a film that occasionally decides to destroy all meaning of time and space in its attempt to whip up a quirky cocktail of comical fantasy. I can tell you that it’s pretty obvious that the source material is far more dense as the film merely gives us glimpses into these pockets of insanity. I can also tell you that the film is pretty brilliant.
JOHN DIES AT THE END is directed by Don Coscarelli (PHANTASM, BUBBA HO-TEP), a guy we don’t get to hear nearly enough of. This is his first film in ten years and it explodes like an orgasmic burst of artistic energy that has been building up inside of him for the past decade. The film is strange and yet with every little oddity and non sequitur that pops up, there’s a sense that this is exactly the way things should be. Coscarelli does quirky better than most and it’s skilled craftsmen like him that expose people like Richard Kelly as mere pretenders to the throne.
There is a refreshing number of relative newcomers in the cast and they rub elbows well with several great character actors who are allowed to flex beyond their comfort zone. Of particular entertainment value are Clancy Brown as a stage magician who is no phony, Doug Jones as a downright Joel Grey-like emissary from beyond and Angus Scrimm as a priest who tells it like it is.
So, onwards and upwards then? Well, yes and no. The bad news is that the film does fall apart at the end. The good news is that it’s the very end. JOHN DIES AT THE END becomes one of those films that tacks on an epilogue during the end credits and it doesn’t sit well at all. Ordinarily, one sequence would be not worth mentioning. However, this is the last scene and it made me question where the film was heading and how much I even liked the main characters. And that is unfortunately the feeling Coscarelli decides to leave us with. It’s a superfluous addition and one that sort of blows up in the filmmakers’ faces.
However, if you leave the moment the credits start to roll, you’re golden. The rest of JOHN DIES AT THE END is more than good enough to rank this as one of the craziest, most inventive films of late. ★★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for bloody violence and gore, nudity, language and drug content.
– Running time: 1hr 39mins.
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