When a moustache spontaneously rips itself off a man’s face and starts flapping about the room like a bat on acid is the moment one realizes “John Dies at the End” is the type of film that audience members will either ardently adore or vehemently despise, with little space in between. This critic lands firmly in the former.
A 21st-century stumble through the looking glass and into multiple dimensions, “John Dies at the End” cannot rightly be described but should certainly be experienced. Based on the cult novel, this frenzied filmic funhouse follows David (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) as they jump through multiple planes of modern-day existence to save humanity from an otherworldly attack while massively tripping on a mind-bending drug called Soy Sauce.
David and John’s quest shoots them at warp-speed through a series of totally nonsensical, thoroughly entertaining set pieces that nod to latter-20th-century C-level horror flicks. A dizzy lineup of looney tune monsters and humans greet the duo: One moment, they’re saving a young lady from her zombie boyfriend; the next, they’re fighting off a beast conglomerated from frozen deli meat. Situations morph before our eyes in startlingly unexpected ways, sprouting off into tangent upon tangent that grow too rapidly to question.
Not only until the final third—set in a tropical otherworld populated by topless Amazon women in commedia dell’arte masks—does the film lose steam as it settles for a less inspired denouement.
Don Coscarelli (“Phantasm,” “Bubba Ho-tep”) is one of the few directors who could have successful mastered the film’s firmly tongue-in-cheek, macabre whimsy. (Joe Dante or Tim Burton in the ’80s also come to mind.) Coscarelli’s visual effects are full of titillating surprises that are only occasionally marred by low-budget CGI.
Perfectly cast Williamson gives protagonist David a hipster charm without the pretention. He brilliantly avoids stooping to self-aware laughs by playing his role as if it was an intense teen in an angsty indie coming-of-age flick. Mayes makes less of his role as John, opting for broad laughs as a stereotypically doofus jock. Clancy Brown as a mystic televangelist, Paul Giamatti as a baffled journalist, and Glynn Turman as a Samuel L. Jackson-inspired badass detective round out a dream team of supporting players.
Granted, many viewers may find “John Dies at the End” befuddling nonsense and futilely grasp for meaning in its meandering rambunctiousness. Fans of comedic horror films and imaginatively episodic head trips, however, have found a new darling.
Critic’s Score: B
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Casting by Dylann Brander and Kelly Wagner
Starring Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti