John Dies At The End is a remarkably original movie, even though it’s based on a novel. Director Don Coscarelli, who also adapted the screenplay, has merged several different, potentially conflicting styles— horror, comedy, sci fi—into a movie that resides firmly in its own universe(s).
Beginning with a grotesque, comical scene involving a particularly nasty animated corpse and a faulty axe, the film is interrupted briefly by a few seconds of a title sequence and then gets right back into the narrative, which continues to be so bizarre that it draws you in, although you likely have no firm grasp of what’s actually going on. That’s a lot of the charm of John Dies At The End, which makes a whole lot more sense the second time around, but still doesn’t require that you totally understand its plot (or even what you’re actually witnessing on screen) to enjoy and appreciate it.
The party by the lake that sets the main events of the film in motion feels so real, you might think you recognize some of the crowd members. And then things get weird. Main characters David (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) help ground the film in reality by being remarkably believable in their roles as the unlikely twentysomething chosen ones.
David is a skeptic who has developed a bone-dry sense of humor not from being jaded or overly confident, but because he doesn’t want to look like a fool. John, on the other hand, is a surprisingly resourceful, completely unselfconscious goofball, whose inability to care about looking or sounding uncool works in his favor. David and John react to things the way any young, underemployed guy who’s been dosed with a previously unheard of psychoactive drug would. Their performances render the ridiculous situations in which the pair find themselves as genuinely shocking or hilarious (or both) instead of cartoonish.
Everyone else in the film is top notch, performance-wise. Paul Giamatti is perfect as Arnie Blondestone the disbelieving journalist, so much so that his reaction to evidence of other-dimensional critters elicits more laughter the more dismayed he becomes. Glynn Turman plays Detective Lawrence Appleton with a no nonsense grit that renders any “black detective” stereotypes completely moot. I’m not sure if Clancy Brown’s Dr. Marconi is supposed to be French or Italian, but either way, he’s amazing, especially when he breaks through his ultra-serious character towards the end. For once, the romance in a film like this (is there another film like this?) feels organic, thanks to Fabienne Therese’s low-key portrayal of Amy. Keep your eyes peeled for Jonny Weston, as Justin White, because everybody knows somebody like that guy.
Despite all the various otherworldly entities, John Dies At The End utilizes many practical effects that also create an aura of this-could-maybe-happen. The giant bug, the toothy slug, and the vengeful meat monster are impressively realistic; even the bomb looks real because it actually is real (and would make a hell of a cool prop for Halloween or your coffee table).
To describe much more of John Dies At The End would probably diminish a lot of the fun of actually watching it. How does one categorize a movie like John Dies At The End, anyway? A multi-dimensional, cross-universal science-fiction-esque comedy of horrors, perhaps? If that’s the kind of sub-sub-genre that sounds appealing, you’ll definitely love John Dies At The End.
John Dies At The End was released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada and Raven Banner on April 2.
The special features include a refreshingly informative and enjoyable commentary track with director Don Coscarelli, producer Brad Buruh, and actors Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes. There are two featurettes include “Getting Sauced: The Making of John Dies At The End” and “Creature Corps: The Effects of Soy Sauce.” The latter has some terrific behind the scenes footage of the various props and practical effects used in the film. There are also a few revealing casting sessions with Fabienne Therese, Rob Mayes, and Chase Williamson, and a fun interview with Paul Giamatti from Fangoria.