Review of ‘John Dies At The End’ (2013)
Don Coscarelli makes interesting films. Whilst not the most prolific director few would argue that there are some bona fide classics on his C.V. He is the mind behind the ‘Phantasm’ series and, though some of the sequels are inconsistent, there is no doubt that they are strange and interesting works. He was also responsible for ‘The Beastmaster’ way back in 1982 which was one of my favourite films as a boy and in 2002 gave us ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ starring Bruce Campbell, one of the more unusual genre pieces of the 2000s. Since then he has directed only a ‘Masters of Horror’ segment in the last decade before returning now with ‘John Dies At The End’.
Under normal circumstances, this would be the section where I would write a summative paragraph giving a flavour of the film’s plot. I couldn’t do this for ‘John Dies At The End’, not in a satisfactory manner anyway. Essentially it revolves around friends Dave and John who, via an addictive drug known as ‘Soy Sauce’, become embroiled a plot to foil an invasion of our dimension by creatures from another. As the story develops and ghosts, taking dogs, time travel, hallucinogenics, alien mind control parasites and more are piled in, it quickly becomes far more deranged and ludicrous.
At a pacey 95 minutes ‘John Dies At The End’ moves very swiftly for a film that is, essentially, character driven. One of its real strengths is its central performances; Chase Williamson’s Dave and Rob Mayes’ John have real chemistry together on screen and are instantly likeable. They are ably supported by Glynn Turman’s turn as a detective caught up investigating the case of an exploding Rastafarian (!), Paul Giamatti (who also produced) as a reporter to whom Dave is relating his story and Fabianne Therese as Amy, Dave’s love interest and key plot device. Coscarelli also enlists the ever-reliable Doug Jones and Clancy Brown to flesh out the ensemble with two amusing extended cameos, Jones’ strange, other-worldly look fitting in well with the tone of the film.
There are a significant number of special effects used throughout and these cover a large number of different areas. Coscarelli wisely chooses to stick to physical make up and models where possible although the time travel and hallucinogenic effects obviously needed to be computer generated. The production was clearly low budget so these are very much a mixed bag; generally the creature effects and injury detail are very well done, if a little hokey in places, and the CGI is acceptable.
Coscarelli’s experience of working within tight budget constraints clearly helps the film. It would have been easier to make each scene interminably dark to mask the low-budget nature of the production but this is not the route taken; even though most of the story takes place at night everything is clearly presented and laid out before the audience showing the director’s commendable faith in his production team. Various simple angles and coloured filters are employed to show that the characters have moved between different dimensions; a cheap yet effective strategy when working on a small budget. If anything, I would have liked to see the film take in more of the dimensional jumps and weird variations than it does but it would be unfair to hold this against it; this is also an issue to some extent with David Wong’s source text. Coscarelli clearly understands the weird nature of the story and keeps it light, using his camera to good effect mirroring the fractured nature of the characters’ behaviour.
My biggest reservation about ‘John Dies At The End’ is that parts of it seem to make little sense. The narrative skips time, dimension and the strand of the story we are following and it often became muddled and confused. At points it feels more like a thematically connected series of scenes rather than a coherent narrative; some scenes clearly link towards the end whereas others seemingly stand on their own and have little or no bearing on the rest of the film. That’s not to say that ‘John Dies At The End’ isn’t fun, because it is, but I have seen it three times now and I’m still not sure what some of the scenes add to the narrative or quite what happened.
You should watch ‘John Dies At The End’. It’s fun, it has some good special effects, and the performances are excellent. More than that though, it is unique – there is very little like it and Coscarelli has continued his trend of giving us weird and peculiar genre movies. I like ‘John Dies At The End’ but, more than anything I’ve watched in recent memory, it is destined to be cinematic Marmite – you will either love it and go with it like I did, ignoring the fact that you’re never quite sure you’ve understood it, or you’ll hate it and consider it pretentious, nonsensical rubbish. It has cult movie written all over it and, regardless of your overall verdict, you’ll discuss it with others and think about what you’ve seen long after it’s finished. Any film that can do that is definitely worth your time. Recommended.
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