Review: John Dies at the End

Written & Directed by Don Coscarelli
Starring Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes & Paul Giamatti

Now Playing in NYC @ Landmark Sunshine Cinema

Hmm…what do you say about a movie that has a monster made out of meat, a dog named Bark Lee driving a car, and a penis doorknob scene?

Let’s see.John Dies at The End, now playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street, is a solid postmodern horror-scifi-drug-comedy, there-and-back-again feature from star indie director Don Coscarelli (‘Bubba Ho-Tep‘). It’s a smart and subtle comedy and a sci-fi thriller rolled into one—and if that kind of movie appeals to you, you’ll definitely enjoy this.

‘John Dies…’ is the story of two best friends, Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes). They’re slackers—disaffected and unflinchingly laid back. At a party they run into a Jamaican named Robert Marley who seems to have odd powers and is pushing a new drug called Soy Sauce or “the sauce.” They end up trying this stuff, which opens their senses to a whole bunch of crazy supernatural powers and phenomena, including clairvoyance and inter-dimensional travel. Which would be really cool, if it didn’t also reveal a plot from a Lovecraftian cosmic horror daemon to devour the earth. So naturally, it’s up the buddies to save the day.

The story, based on the best-selling novel of the same name, is built like a labyrinth. It opens with a preamble of Dave telling a story, which involves flashbacks and quick jumps in setting. Then we see Dave being interviewed by reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti). Dave recounts the epic tale in a series of flashbacks—the plot constantly shifts between the interview and the various flashbacks. Coscarelli and company pull off the “disjointed plot structure” well. It is not the whole point of the film, so it doesn’t approach ‘Memento’-style complexity, but it serves the goals of the story and adds to the quirkiness of the thing.

The acting is quite good. Chase Williamson can communicate volumes with subtle facial expressions, and pulls off the skinniness, the apathy, and the underlying aggression of the modern young man of fashion with skill. Rob Mayes shines as his naïve, good-natured and energetic best friend and comrade. And of course, it’s amazing to see Paul Giamatti at his regular caliber in such a bizarre, off-the-beaten-path movie. The supporting cast is great too—Doug Jones as a mysterious cosmic benefactor, Glynn Thurman as a Detective trying to piece everything together, and Clancy Brown as a paranormal celebrity who is actually not full of shit at all.

Now, all of these parts work together to create a whole that will entertain most people no matter what. But this film is destined to become a cult classic—following in the vein of the ‘Evil Dead’ and ‘Army of Darkness’ films—because of a set of particular themes that make it stand out from the norm. These are mentioned fairly explicitly at points in the film, and a treatment of them will help explain why I and others enjoy this kind of thing.

In short, it goes back to postmodernism. ‘John Dies at The End’ deals with reality. As Dave says at one point, after taking soy sauce it is almost as if “things are real and not real at the same time.” John likewise advances that “space is a puff of smoke. ”The two heroes at one point walk into “a room that would make Franz Kafka’s head spin.” Kafka was a Czech writer who in many ways was the precursor to Existentialism. His works feature such themes as characters on a horrific quest, and are usually described with adjectives like metaphysical, absurd, bewildering, and nightmarish—adjectives perfectly applicable to John Dies.

A core tenet of Existentialism is the essential meaninglessness of the universe. A despair of there being a true reality. These bleak themes run through the genre of absurdist horror—but each film deals with them in different ways. Just as, when confronted with despair and horror in life, humans have a choice to make in how they respond, different directors will offer their own advice. 2012’s other great horror comedy, ‘Cabin in the Woods’, chose to embrace nihilism and let humanity perish. What Coscarelli offers depends on whether the universe can be saved, whether the heroes find meaning, whether there is a return to, or there ever was, the presence of a concrete reality. Whether John does, indeed, die at the end. And for those answers, you’ll have to see the film yourself.

Tim Wainwright

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