You’re probably aware that most movies have a set-up in which the characters and plot are introduced. John Dies at the End, which is an adaptation of the horror-comedy book by Cracked.com writer David Wong, really doesn’t. The two main characters are named Dave and John, and the most we learn about them is that they are friends. We don’t find out anything else about their backgrounds except that John is the lead singer of a band and that they are otherwise slackers who are probably lucky that this crazy stuff is happening to them because their lives would be incredibly boring otherwise.
Thankfully there is a lot more to the plot. It turns out that David (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) ingest a new drug called “Soy Sauce” that allows the taker to see beyond the borders of reality. Because of that, the two are able to see into other dimensions, but that leads them to discover that some really messed up stuff is happening to Earth. The mysterious and creepy Robert North (Doug Jones in one of his few out-of-costume roles) seems to have something to do with it, as does TV paranormal expert Dr. Marconi (Clancy Brown), although ultimately it falls to David and John to save the world. By the way, if you’re a Paul Giamatti fan and see his name on the poster, be aware that this is one of his roles like Ironclad in which he makes a brief appearance to lend his name to the project (he is probably in 10 minutes of the film altogether). However, Giamatti also served as executive producer so he obviously saw something in the material. It’s worth mentioning though that despite being relatively unknowns both Williamson and Mayes are solid in their roles as the type of goofball slackers that Seann William Scott would’ve been perfect for a decade ago.
Director Don Coscarelli, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, has spent the last two decades directing Phatasm sequels and 2002’s cult favorite Bubba Ho-Tep, and this movie fits perfectly alongside the horror-comedy of the latter. In fact, the movie reminded me a lot of Bubba Ho-Tep and Army of the Darkness in the sense that you need to have a very particular sense of humor to “get” it, but if it’s your type of humor you’ll love it (it certainly doesn’t have the potential of mass appeal as a horror-comedy like Zombieland). If you’re a Cracked.com fan and have read the novel, I am sure you will enjoy the movie adaptation, but if you have little tolerance for this sort of surreal humor you’ll be checking your watch every few minutes. Then again, hardcore fans of the book will likely be upset that Coscarelli had to cut huge chunks of the nearly 500 page novel while adapting it. But part of the problem is that even the shortened narrative still runs at a breakneck pace, so not only is this the Cliff’s Notes version of John Dies at the End it’s also being done in fast-forward.
As far as horror-comedies go, John Dies at the End is very clever — for example, it opens with a zombie-killing version of the grandfather’s axe paradox (i.e. if you replace the broken handle of an axe, then sometime later replace the broken head of that axe, is it still fundamentally the “same” axe?) But clever doesn’t always equal entertaining, so John Dies at the End ends up being Coscarelli throwing his favorite parts of the novel into a script and hoping audiences will just laugh over the tenuous attempts to link the scenarios.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the oddest thing about this very weird film is the inconsistency of the special effects. Some are excellent (early in the film John and Dave fight a “meat monster” that looks awesome), but others look like direct-to-video computer animation (much of the climax). I’m sure it probably that had to do with the budget, but considering that shooting wrapped in January 2011 it’s not like there wasn’t time to work on the CGI. Overall it isn’t a major issue, but it is pretty glaring.
Rating: If surreal horror-comedy is your thing and you don’t go in expecting it to be as funny as Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead, you’ll enjoy it. Otherwise skip it for something that’s more to your taste (3/10).
John Dies at the End with be available on VOD on December 27 and will have a limited theatrical run in January.