Lawrence Person reviews John Dies at the End

(Howard was under the weather, so it’s just me solo this time out.)

John Dies at the End is a weird, silly, lightweight, low-budget science fiction comedy. If you’re in the mood for that, you’ll enjoy it as long as you dial your expectations knob down to modest.

In the frame story, white protagonist David Wong (which just happens to be the name of the author of the novel the movie’s based on, a very Generation Whatever move), played by Chase Williamson, is telling his deeply unlikely story to reporter Paul Giamatti (in a role for which principle photography could have been banged out in a weekend). Dave and his buddy John (Rob Mayes) are freelance exorcists dispatching evil with prosaic tools like guns and baseball bats. When John’s band (shades of Buckaroo Banzi) plays the world’s smallest rave, Dave meets a weird Jamaican (Tai Bennett) who seems to have uncanny powers. Later a freaked-out John calls Dave in the middle of the night telling him to get his evil-killing kit.

Turns out John has been dosed with a mysterious black drug called “the soy sauce” that messes with the linear sense of time and lets him see monsters. In the course of driving him around, Dave gets dosed as well, and not only becomes disentimed, but also gains the ability to travel to a parallel world and broad but ill-defined powers of perception, making him sort of a bargain bin Kwisatz Haderach. (Also, some weirdo suddenly appears in his car with a alien worm he shoves down Dave’s shirt. All in all, not a great night.)

From there it gets weirder and sillier, with a rock-star telementalist (Clancy Brown, speaking of Buckaroo Banzi), a telepathic dog (sort of), a frustrated detective faced with a bunch of mysteriously dead teenagers (Glynn Turman), an insect swarm invasion that hosts in people’s bodies (alive or dead), a love interest with an artificial hand (Fabianne Therese) and a giant tentacled monstrosity on a parallel earth. Plus a meat monster and a random zombie.

You get a lot of weirdness for the 99 minute running time.

And all of it makes a certain amount of sense. Despite a bit of detached irony and slacker attitude, it’s not a postmodern winkfest; the comedy comes out of the material rather than gratuitous fourth-wall violations. While it’s frequently too tabloid weird, it’s not kitchen sink weird, as the pieces (more or less) fit together. It’s definitely better than some cinematic “weird of for the sake of weird” examples I could name (I’m looking at you, Rubber). And the non-linearity of the narrative matches the protagonist’s altered perception of time, and provides some laughs. (“Are we driving to or from the mall?” “To.” “Oh yeah, Fred’s not dead yet.” Fred: “What???”)

If you liked Bubba Ho-Tep, Coscarelli’s previous film, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one. John Dies at the End isn’t as good as Bubba Ho-Tep; the story’s not as tight, the leads aren’t nearly as good as Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis, and it lacks that film’s surprising pathos and empathy. But it does strike some of the same funny/weird/dark notes.

There are problems, many of which I suspect were present in the novel (which I haven’t read). The alien bug invasion part works much better than the parallel world Forbin Project Cthuloid monstrosity part. The film has too many endings and an unnecessary coda. The reporter interview frame looks even more like a transparent infodumping excuse than usual.

Coscarelli generally does a good job with a budget that’s almost certainly (like all his films) miniscule, but the cheapness does start to show near the end, when the parallel world is represented by three underdressed sets and a bunch of people in masks, which gives it a bit of a Beneath the Planet of the Apes vibe. “And now we’ll show you something in the form of a cartoon, because you’ll find it less disturbing.” Yeah, that and special effects showing giant spiders ripping people’s heads off would be a lot more expensive…

That said, the special effects that are on screen, a mixture of practical, stop-motion, latex, and maybe a pinch of CGI, are more than passable. “More than passable” is also a good way to describe the acting. Giamatti’s fine, but it’s not going to make anyone forget Sideways. Most of the cast is a little subdued, even more so than required by the Generation Whatever vibe. Lead Chase Williamson spends 95% of the entire movie looking quizzical. Turman’s cop and Bennett’s Jamaican probably have the most fun.

John Dies at the End is light, entertaining, and moves quickly. If you like the trailer, you’ll probably like the film. Think of it as weirder, more modern, and slightly more serious than the Bill & Ted films (though it’s neither as good, nor as silly), and you’re sort of getting in the ballpark. Unlike Donnie Darko or Monsters, it’s not the sort of transcendent low-budget film that absolutely demands your immediate attention, but it’s entertaining enough you won’t regret catching it on Netflix.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen’s Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

One thought on “Lawrence Person reviews John Dies at the End

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *