Review: 'John Dies At The End' offers a druggy dark comedy horror romp
There's going to come a point somewhere down the road, probably sooner than I would like, when my two sons start to ask me questions about drugs, and I'm going to have to make some hard choices about what to share with them about my various chemical indiscretions over the years.
One of the ways I'll make the conversation easier is through the use of specific films as examples of how things feel when you're altered. And now, after tonight's midnight screening at Sundance, I can add "John Dies At The End" to the list of films that I can use to illustrate how it feels when you have intentionally attempted to alter reality through the use of some sort of outside influence. Based on a novel by David Wong, one of the founding voices of Cracked.com, "John Dies At The End" tells the story of what happens when two friends are exposed to a profoundly bizarre drug that is nicknamed "Soy Sauce," which enables them to see an invisible world full of monsters and doorways to other dimensions and things too strange to describe.
I would wager that the opening sequence of "JDATE," as the publicity team working on the film hilariously abbreviated the title in their emails to me this week, is one of the most confident and impressive first scenes of any film at Sundance this year. It sets a tone that falls somewhere between "Ghostbusters" and the work of William S. Burroughs, and by the time the actual title appears onscreen, I was hooked. There is a confidence to the movie that is impressive even if you're familiar with the other work of Don Coscarelli. I just recently went back and saw the original "Phantasm" for the first time in about 15 years, and I was actually more impressed by the film now than I was when I originally saw it. There's a great surreal mood to the film that is almost like an American Argento movie, and I love the bleak attitude of that film, the way it feels like a dream, a sort of waking nightmare.
With this film, Coscarelli balances on the fine line between creepy and hilarious, and the moment I fell for the film was the same moment I fell for the book, a truly dirty beat in the middle of an attempted escape from a basement. If you've read the book, I'm betting you remember the beat, and once you see the movie, you'll absolutely remember the beat. Not only is it a great joke, but it's an indication that pretty much anything goes. There's a sense of glee to the way even the darkest moments in the film play out. Coscarelli is enjoying himself, and the cast seems committed to whatever lunacy he heaps on them.
The main character in the movie is named David Wong, just like the author, and Chase Williamson stars as David. He plays things with a sense of reserve, which is perfect since he can't possibly hope to be more manic than the parade of freaky characters and situations that he and John Cheese (Rob Mayes) are exposed to in the film. They make a very natural pairing, and then they're supported by actors like Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, and Paul Giamatti in key roles, and all of those guys absolutely crush it in their time onscreen.
Giamatti is part of the framework for the film, playing Arnie, a reporter who meet David in a Chinese restaurant one night to hear his story. He doesn't believe anything David is saying, and so David begins to offer up more details as well as proof, and while it's not exactly a linear ride, what follows is a woozy, druggy adventure movie of sorts in which no less than the entire world is in peril from… well, when you see what the world is endangered by, it's certainly not something you've seen endless times before.
The film is definitely an indie, and there are times where Coscarelli is pushing right up against the limitations of his budget. Luckily, he's an inventive filmmaker who has made a career of stretching his budgets as far as he can, and the film is filled with crazy, wild imagery that will delight genre fans. It's fun and it's gross and it's silly and it's playful… and it does indeed get that feeling, that out of control liquid reality feeling of hallucinogens, just right. When things start to get weird during a phone call featuring Angus Scrimm, for example, everything starts to get warm, haloed, and hyper-crisp. There's nothing random about the imagery of this movie. It's all scripted carefully and then executed with a very specific energy. It's impressively designed and shot, and I think the film is far more polished than Coscarelli's last feature, the delightfully low-fi "Bubba Ho-Tep." If I have any issue with the structure of the film, it's that the second half isn't as much dizzy fun as the first half, but that's just because they actually have to start tying up story points instead of just spinning them wildly.
I think it's a movie with real mainstream possibilities, even if it is willfully strange. It's the sort of strange that invites an audience in rather than the kind that intentionally repels them. There are films playing Sundance this week that positively insist on being off-putting and grotesque, and we'll get to those in some of the reviews I haven't finished writing yet. But "JDATE" is eager to please, and even when things get really strange, the film is constantly finding ways to delight and startle. I hope it does well because I'd like to see more of this world with these same actors involved. In the interest of full disclosure, Coscarelli and I were both part of the 2005 limited run series of one-hour horror films, "Masters Of Horror," and I worked with one of the actors in the film, the deliciously odd Doug Jones, in an episode of another series, "Fear Itself," so feel free to discount what I have to say about this one.
It'll be your loss, though. "John Dies At The End" is still currently seeking distribution.