John Dies at the End
One might cynically see John Dies at the End as in instant cult movie, tailor-made as a stoner favourite. It’s sure to be exactly that. I’m quite certain it is already, since I’ve come a bit late to the game in seeing it. It’s the kind of story thought up after one too many bong hits, and the result is a picture that instantly invites X-meets-Z movie comparisons, or reminds the viewer of the giddiness of discovering a weird spectacle with a truly off-the-wall sensibility. If John Dies at the End can’t quite pay off the promise of its first hour, it’s still an irreverent, messy, hugely inventive, cartoonish delight.
Really good cult movies of this ilk really don’t come along all that often, ones bubbling with their own self-conscious bravado, so their niche audience has a tendency to over hype them when they do. There’s a ready and eager demand for trippy, apocalyptic, gross-out comedies that wear their knowledge of science fiction, horror and substance abuse on their sleeves. But it would be unfair to peg John Dies at the End with the less inventive The World’s End and This is the End (one might dispute John’s kinship with these pictures, but I think we can agree they have the End in common). Despite John succumbing to lowest common denominator gags at times, and a “slacker” default that occasionally grates, there’s a running drollery to the movie that makes it very winning. Honestly, they had me at the song titled Camel Apocalypse. And then came the flying moustache.
Perhaps the difference between the geeks-who-did comedies based on formative genre influences and John Dies at the End is Don Coscarelli, a genre darling for three and a half decades but still a mere pup of 60 years age. I’ve managed to miss most of his pictures, despite always being aware of when a new one comes along. A purveyor of cheap-and-cheerful whacked-out horror movies (approximately half his filmography consists of the Phantasm series), he follows course with John Dies at the End. It wears its low budget as a badge of pride, and there’s something appealingly ‘80s about the straight-to-video special effects. I was put in mind of movies like Waxwork II: Lost in Time. Arguably, its general approach of anarchic horror-comedy mash-up finds its firmest roots in that decade’s Evil Dead II. But the loser protagonists set-up starts with Bill & Ted, and runs through Dude, Where’s My Car before ending up here. Indeed, part of the reason the third act (well, I don’t think the movie divides on quite such clear lines, but you get the idea) stumbles isn’t really down to the make-do effects work (lots of bad green screen in there); it’s that the madcap finale owes so much to the double-think reality bending of its predecessors, and so in its own way comes across as disappointingly linear.
Points of comparisons and references to possible inspirations are rife, from Bill & Ted meets The Naked Lunch (that one from executive producer Paul Giamatti) to Douglas Adams meets Stephen King (Coscarelli on the novel and why he bought the rights) to mental ‘80s W D Richter movies (as writer or director) Big Trouble in Little China and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Chances are any given trip movie will come to mind (hence Cronenberg, Altered States, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Limitless) or pictures dealing with time travel and alternate realities (Donnie Darko). Bill and Ted meets In the Mouth of Madness was my initial reaction, on the kind of budget Carpenter had for Prince of Darkness (although, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ work is top notch in spite of his limitations; there’s much visual inventiveness here, while retaining an identifiably comic vibe). Lovecraft is definitely strongly in the mix and there’s something of the Robert Anton Wilson to the stacked-up over-involved exposition of the final third (which, as note, unfortunately fails to satisfy by being overly derivative).
In most of these cases the name checks are complimentary, since they suggest an active creativity and vibrancy. You’d be forgiven for initially thinking this might be a crude Kevin Smith-esque affair when, on trying to escape a cellar, a door knob transforms into a large johnson (“That door cannot be opened!”) And, when the picture goes for crudity, it is at its weakest (“Shitload”, Korrok insulting the size of David’s wiener, the knowledge that a device will “sure fuck his shit up, seriously”); it’s the kind of laziness one expects from Smith, and it does a little to undermine the genuine bursts of strangeness. On the other hand, some of the silliest sight gags (Dave talking into a hotdog as if it’s a mobile phone) work because they are inventively sustained or cutely referenced (“Apparently, it’s Eyes Wide Shut world”).
Reaction to the movie seems to be mixed among devotees of David Wong’s – Jason Pargin’s penname shares that of the book/movie’s main protagonist – novel of “spiritualist exorcists”, as it apparently eschews much of the explanatory material and character development. This includes the reason for the title (it’s not just a joke about spoiling the end of a story, but I’m not going to spoil it by explaining why) but if anything, I was more partial to the resultantly fragmented and slightly incoherent inclusions, which add a Lynchian vibe to the reality-busting incidents.
The inclusion of the Theseus Paradox (if you replace every part of a boat, is it still the same boat?) in respect of an axe doesn’t relate to anything per se, the way it does in the novel, but that kind of randomness, like the multiple introductory storylines (Chase Williamson’s Dave and the axe, Dave telling Giamatti’s reporter Arnie Blondestone about his abilities, Dave introducing John while recounting an encounter with a meat monster, Dave relating his first experience of the drug “Soy Sauce” ; one that gives him psychic powers but is also deadly and appears to be the key to an invasion of Earth from an alternate dimension) seems entirely appropriate. There’s a marvellously loopy scene in which “Robert Marley” (Tai Bennett) instructs the sceptical Dave that “Time is an illusion” as he recounts how an explosion at the end of Dave’s dream the night before coincided with a clap of thunder outside his window; how did Dave construct the narrative of his dream in advance to match this? Coscarelli also throws in seemingly random surrealities with delightful regularity (“Have I died yet?”, “Was that me?”, “Are you my dad?”, “This phone still works”).
The encounter with the meat monster (complete with a frozen turkey head) is wonderfully shoe-string and all the more effective for it (there’s even stop motion!), while the budget creatures seen out of the corner of the eye (on ceilings or in cages) manage to tread that fine line between naff and disturbing. However, the one-eyed Korrok is a failure, since it’s just what you’d expect from a tale wearing its extra-space/time realms and creature influences on its sleeve.
Coscarelli populates John with a cast of new and familiar faces. Williamson, called on to deliver reams of voiceover in a not-quite-there air of resignation, avoids the “whacky” tone of many a stoner movie. Rob Mayes is more in line with that pose, but he lends John a guileless affability. Giamatti is great, but he always is; his presence lends the picture a peculiar credibility even though his role is not a large one. Then there are the horror movie icons Doug Jones (Pinhead in Hellraiser) and Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man in Phantasm). Clancy Brown is very funny, but underused, as TV psychic Marconi while The Wire’s Glynn Turman is also memorable as world-weary police detective. And there’s a sterling performance from intrepid and fearless hound Bark Lee, playing himself (his best moment comes driving a car).
Coscarelli’s delirious psychedelic comic book mindbender does a great job shuffling in and out of warped realities and fractured consciousnesses. Its drawback is that Wong’s choice of slacker protagonists identifies it too clearly with a company of fellow drop-out comedies. It’s a product of a geekdom that gives voice to its influences rather than subsumes them, but at heart it’s more akin to a comic variant on Richard Kelly’s oeuvre than guilty of the shameless plundering of Wright & Pegg et al. Of course, aficionados of both those oeuvres will doubtless be rolling a big fat one before indulging, and the same applies here.