|John Dies at the End
Starring Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti
Directed By: Don Coscarelli
Title of the film notwithstanding, I’m going to try my hardest to make this a fairly spoiler free review because there are enough twists on this strange journey that the title can barely brace you for what’s in store. The latest horror-tinged mind-screw from Don Coscarelli has a lot of ideas going for it, but whether or not those pieces fit together is the real question here.
This is Coscarelli embracing the body-horror style of David Cronenberg through his own demented lens. Let it be known upfront that I am a rabid fan of both the Phantasm franchise and Bubba Ho-Tep. Coscarelli has taken David Wong’s novel of the same name and meshed his own cracked vision with the visual grotesquery and bad-trip vibes of The Naked Lunch. The result is a wholly entertaining, if not sometimes repulsive and psychotic, romp through the nightmarish hilarity of Wong’s recounting of his ordeal.
The film opens with our hero, David Wong (Chase Williamson), in the process of beheading an undead skinhead whilst making salient philosophical observations about the axe he’s using and what it’s gone through to find its way into his hands. We then cut to Wong sitting in a dilapidated Chinese restaurant waiting for reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) who is interested in telling Wong’s story. Don’t be alarmed that Wong is a Caucasian male, this isn’t another example of Hollywood whitewashing. Wong chose the pseudonym due to the practical fact that “Wong” is the most common surname on Earth. Wong then proceeds to tell Arnie of his phantasmagoric odyssey.
David and his best friend, John Cheese (our unfortunate titular character played by Rob Mayes), received a call from a friend of theirs the night before saying she was being terrorized by her undead boyfriend. When they get there and ask her about some of the weirdness afoot she, naturally, melts into snakes and reconstructs herself into what is basically a meat golem bent on confronting noted television psychic Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown). This is pretty much how things are going to go down for the remainder of the film, with the viewer assaulted by repugnant monstrosities and incomprehensible plot points punctuated with whip-smart, dark dialog and a slight measure of camp.
Sensing Arnie’s ever present skepticism David explains that not only can he see future probabilities with pinpoint accuracy he is also privy to the thoughts and dreams of others as he recounts a particularly disturbing dream of Arnie’s. David explains that these extra-sensory abilities are a side effect of a strange and powerful drug known as “soy sauce.” Then we go back to the night where everything began.
During a party several years ago David meets a strange Jamaican mystic by the name of Robert Marley (Tai Bennett) who can also perform the same dream interpretations. Marley explains that the soy sauce essentially opens the consciousness to be able to see the bleedover from alternate dimensions, particularly hellish alternate dimensions. This comes along with some precognition, basic ESP abilities and some sort of time travel. The film refers to this as "if you hooked up a radio to a SETI antenna” and the concept of time is more of “an ocean” instead of a “garden hose.”
The ensuing adventure operates on such a bizarre timetable that it really can only be experienced rather than explained. But it’s a clever and funny tripped out ride riddled with violence and a few good explosions along the way. What begins as a bad trip gone wrong ultimately becomes a battle in an alternate dimension for the continued existence of the human race. Williamson and Mayes are fun and likable as the heroic duo and Giamatti is as good as ever in his role as Arnie the disillusioned journalist.
The creature effects are top-notch and the film is nothing if not creative. But sometimes it feels as though it struggles under the weight of just how much it has going on that keeps the movie from congealing properly. While definitely an interesting ride, if at times nigh incomprehensible, this piece of time-bending adventure horror will be sure to garner a cult following and sit nicely with the rest of Coscarelli’s catalog.