Retro Review: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2013){0}

Some movies are just born weird, plain and simple, and thank the movie gods for that. Sometimes weirdness and absurdity hit the screen like a lead weight, like a few of us saw in last year’s Branded, and other times the cinematic weirdness clicks into place and serves a purpose besides that of simple, well, weirdness. This is to say that Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of David Wong’s celebrated cult novel John Dies at the End is all sorts of odd, but it also (somehow) all comes together into a satisfying whole. What begins as a seemingly indecipherable collection of bizarre anecdotes about a new drug that allows its users to do magical things slowly and confidently congeals into a satirical sci-fi horror film that, despite all its weird trappings, has the soul of a 1950s b-movie. 

Needless to say, this movie is not for all tastes. At first glance it seems like a wild concoction brewed up from influences like David Cronenberg, Jack Finney, Philip K. Dick, and (insert any of a dozen interesting names here), and for the first fifteen minutes or so, John Dies at the End feels a bit “weird for weird’s sake,” and that’s usually a good way for a movie to become irritating. But by framing Mr. Wong’s insane tale of a drug addiction that may (or may not) lead to a world-destroying alien invasion as a series of “flashback anecdotes” between the magical Dave (Chase Williamson) and the inquisitive Arnie (Paul Giamatti),it allows the viewer to enter the absurdity slowly, and with a guide of some sort. (We’ll soon learn that Dave is not the most reliable of storytellers.)

Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes (as the title character) have a smooth chemistry together, which is important because things get really strange, really fast, and it’s nice to have a pair of semi-heroes who can keep the audience up to speed while stumbling onto another outlandish misadventure. As he always does, Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-tep) makes the most of a limited budget — and, god bless the man, he never lets that limited budget stand in the way of some epic ideas and crazy visual oddities. Genre fans will also appreciate the support work from folks like Clancy Brown, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, and Angus Scrimm — although my favorite is Glynn Turman as a no-nonsense detective who manages to cut through all the craziness and deliver the movie’s best monologue.

Rare is the flick that wedges this many genres into one frame, and so well.

It also helps that the movie never slows down in one place too often, always offers something new and amusing behind each turn, and that Wong and Coscarelli are clearly working on the same wavelength here: John Dies at the End works as an absurd farce of drug culture, a dense but appealing sci-fi story, a dry and funny buddy pic about two slackers who get mixed up in a crazy conspiracy, and a surprisingly splattery horror tale about the dangers of shooting “alien” chemicals into your bloodstream. It’s never a sure bet that a “cult novel” will successfully morph into a “cult movie,” but John Dies at the End should appeal to fans of the novel -and- brave newcomers alike. It’s a strange, convoluted, and scrappy little flick, but it’s also very sly, dry, and consistently, unpredictably… well, fun.