Intermittently clever 'John Dies at the End' doesn't live up to its promise - or its title
John Dies at the End Magnet Releasing
Director: Don Coscarelli
Screenplay: Don Coscarelli, based on the novel by David Wong
Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Fabianne Therese,
Glynn Turman and Doug Jones
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
John Dies at the End is less fun than it presumably should be, and a lot less fun than its title
suggests it will be. You'd think a movie that features time- and space-distorting hallucinogenic
drugs, parallel dimensions, ghosts, clairvoyance, telekinesis, possession, reanimated corpses,
giant bugs, monsters made of frozen meat, a pending apocalypse, exploding people, and penis
doorknobs would be anything but tedious. But in fact it's exactly that, a movie that spends a lot
more time explaining its fantastical concepts than actually producing them.
The general feeling you get is that writer/director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) is
amused by the ideas themselves (pulled from the David Wong novel of the same name) but not
as confident in exactly what he wants to do with them.
In fact, the whole film seems preoccupied with talking about itself. The main story involves
Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), and their accidental involvement in an
interdimensional predicament concerning a black liquid drug nicknamed "Soy Sauce," which
gives users parapsychological abilities before almost invariably killing them.
That sounds promising enough, but the movie insists on having Dave tell the whole story to a
journalist named Arnie (Paul Giamatti) two years after the fact, at which point in time Dave and
John have become a team of paranormal investigators. (Or something.) Despite a fun twist to the
framing device and a typically game performance from Giamatti, the structure is used almost
exclusively for expository purposes, functioning the same way bad voiceover narration
Ultimately, it's filler that adds almost nothing of value to the story itself. It mostly just pads the
running time and gives Coscarelli a recognizable star to sell his movie with.
What's frustrating is that, when John Dies is working, it's a blast. There are times when I felt
like clapping at the sheer ingenuity on display, and the way Coscarelli pays off so many
seemingly innocuous or incidental details. He's nothing if not an imaginative filmmaker, and in
fits and starts - like, for example, when John and Dave get trapped in a basement while various
frozen meat products pull themselves together to form a demonic beast in search of its arch-nemesis - it's hard not to enjoy.
But too often it feels like Coscarelli is trying too hard
to control a story that defies control. On paper, the film seems bonkers, but in execution it's
borderline timid. The frame story exemplifies that, too. The give-and-take between Dave and the
skeptical Arnie plays out in a way that needlessly emphasizes how strange and "impossible to
believe" the tale is. But by doing so, it actually normalizes it. Tames it.
In a nutshell, the story Dave tells to Arnie starts at a party he and John attended a couple years
back. At the party, Dave has a chance encounter with a Jamaican psychic named Robert Marley
(yep) who's trading parlor tricks for free beers. Here, we're introduced to Amy, a girl with a
prosthetic hand who Dave has a bit of a crush on (the girl, not the hand). Later that night, Dave -
now mysteriously in possession of Amy's dog - wakes up to a panicked phone call from John
urging him to come by his apartment. When he gets there, John seems to be in a severely
hallucinatory state, having taken a dose of Soy Sauce procured from the Jamaican psychic.
As it turns out, John isn't merely delusional, but has somehow gotten involved in the disruption
of the time-space continuum. As the night wears on, Dave gets a few other phone calls from John
- as John is sitting right in from of him - from various times in the past and future. John seems
to not only be able to see what has happened and/or will happen, but has actually experienced it
(perhaps many times, and perhaps several versions, I can't quite remember). This is all courtesy
of the Soy Sauce, and Dave eventually - though quite accidentally - is injected with it himself,
and finds he has similarly unusual powers of perception.
Some of the best comedic moments come from the things that John knows that we (and Dave)
don't know, including his apology for the people who are later going to explode - or, in probably
my favorite moment, John figuring out where he is in the timeline by realizing, "Oh yeah,
because Fred Chu is still alive." Right in front of Fred Chu, of course.
What follows is mostly indescribable on paper (at least without getting into spoiler territory), but
as things get more complicated, Dave and John get involved with renowned television psychic
Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown) and a detective (Glynn Turman, in a nice supporting
performance) who's wise to the situation and eventually goes rogue to try and stop what he
believes is an imminent apocalyptic event.
John Dies at the End is fun up to a point, but its pleasures aren't consistent enough to forgive the
structural and storytelling flaws - not to mention the bad CGI. By the end, it begins to play like
conventionally bad science-fiction - not the kind that works as homage, but the kind of thing you
might see unironically on the SyFy Network.