Have you ever heard the old human expression, “I want to shoot you so bad my dick is hard”?
I’m not a big fan of the term “instant cult classic.” For one thing, throwing “instant” and “classic” together is kind of oxymoronic. Secondly, it can be a rather dismissive label for smaller genre films. As in, “It’s not for everyone, but there’s a niche subculture out there who’ll keep this alive.” Some flicks seem to get made with the goal of cult classic status in mind (Black Dynamite, Repo! The Genetic Opera), while others earn it naturally (James Gunn’s Super). Having said all that, John Dies at the End, regardless of its intent, and my feelings on the phrase, is an instant cult classic. It’s certainly not for everyone, but genre geeks are sure to keep this one in their movie lexicon for years.
Based on the comedy/horror novel by David Wong (the pseudonym and author surrogate of Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin), which itself is a collection of his early-2000’s web serial, the film has been brought to life in rather bold fashion, especially considering its modest budget, by cult filmmaker Don Coscarelli. The book, while a bit clunky and meandering, is still a ton of fun, and worth a read. Its trippy, nightmarish vibe—more laugh-out-loud funny than scary—made the Bubba Ho-Tep writer/director a perfect fit to adapt it.
So what’s the story about? Think Ghostbusters by way of H.P. Lovecraft, the CW’s ‘Supernatural’ if it were made by John Carpenter. Speaking of the Halloween director, more than one review has compared J.D.A.T.E. to his Big Trouble in Little China, and I agree, in that it’s hard to explain either movie in a single sentence. Yes, John Dies is about a couple twenty-somethings who take a sentient drug that allows them to read others’ thoughts and jump dimensions, like Big Trouble is about a couple thirty-somethings who get dragged into a centuries-old mystical battle in Chinatown. They’re simple descriptions, but neither gives you an inkling of just how batshit crazy the respective films go.
That’s the ax that slayed me.
John Dies at the End starts with a fantastic tone-setting prologue, and the first 45 minutes or so are often bizarre, exhilarating, and hilarious. You get a sense of titular character and narrator David’s wisecracking rapport (conveyed effectively by strong newcomers Rob Mayes and Chase Williamson), and the story’s huge potential. The second half, however, becomes a bit muddled, sluggish even. You start to see the strain of the picture’s incredibly modest budget. As good as Coscarelli is at making a lot out of a little, it’s still apparent that the ambition and vision are far greater than the funding the movie received. That’s not to say the latter half, and the film as a whole, isn’t worth the ride. The chemistry of the leads, and the detailed world the filmmakers created will keep you entertained for the whole adventure, sloppy editing and barely-above-SyFy-movies-grade CGI be damned. Hell, I’d argue J.D.A.T.E.‘s production value shortcomings add to its charm.
Joining the gory good time are genre favorites Clancy Brown, Doug Jones, and “Pig Vomit” himself, Paul Giamatti, who also served as executive producer. The Oscar nominee plays reporter Arnie Blondestone, whose interview with David frames the narrative. Mr. Wong explains, often vaguely, to the paranormal investigator and the audience about a drug called “Soy Sauce” that gives its users the ability to, among other things, remember the future, and alternate between universes. Appropriately, you get all the surreal, disorienting imagery you’d expect in a tale involving mind-altering drugs; only this film’s trippy sequences involve shape-shifters, truck-driving dogs, and a monster made of frozen meat! Along the way, the story leaves more than a few things hanging like a penis doorknob (you’ll see), including the guys’ relationship with Dr. Marconi, a character you’ll wish had more screen time.
I could nitpick a bit more, but this is a write-up for Rhino’s Horror, and the fine readers of said weblog like a little “B” with their movies. To those kinds of cinema fans, ones who dig offbeat fare like Bucakroo Banzai and Bubba Ho-Tep, I do recommend John Dies at the End. It’s definitely in the same wheelhouse. Yes, it’s uneven, and often a mess, but so is the source material, which I hope this adaptation directs more people toward. At what seemed like a brisk 108 minutes, the unique little movie feels like a setup for a much bigger, possibly episodic story. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I’d much rather see Don Coscarelli and company give us more wacky multidimensional escapades with John and Dave before pursuing Bubbba Nosferatu or Phantasm 5.
Thanks for taking the time, guys, and thank you to Mr. Rhino for giving me the guest spot.
– Shawn Talley
Big thanks to Shawn from Con Artist Entertainment for taking the time to write up this review for John Dies at The End — making this the first “official” review for Rhino’s Horror!