With a few notable exceptions, most mainstream horror films are predictable as the cinematic landscape is littered with unimaginative remakes like Evil Dead (2013) and Carrie (2013) or a seemingly endless assembly line of sequels to lucrative franchises like Paranormal Activity. As always, it’s up to independent filmmakers like Don Coscarelli to come up with unique and original horror films. His claim to fame comes from the much beloved Phantasm series of films, but in recent years his output has slowed down considerably with his last effort being Bubba Ho-Tep in 2002. So, it is great to see him resurface in 2012 with John Dies at the End, an adaptation of David Wong’s gonzo cult novel of the same name. The end result resembles a souped-up episode of Supernatural as if written in the spirit of esoteric hybrid genre films like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
The film begins with our protagonist David Wong (Chase Williamson) extolling the merits of replacing an axe and then the blade itself because, hey, that can happen when you’re trying to dispatch a zombie skinhead with a swastika tattoo on his tongue and who won’t stay dead even when his head has been chopped off. This is Dave’s dilemma. He’s a twentysomething that once saw a man’s kidney grow tentacles and free itself from the body, but, y’know, that’s another story.
Dave meets a reporter by the name of Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) and tells him a story about a crazy adventure he and his friend John Cheese (Rob Mayes) went on at three in the morning. They investigate a young woman’s claims that her boyfriend, who’s been dead for several months, is harassing her. So, Dave and John go over to her house not expecting much only to discover a freezer in the basement that’s full of meat, which proceeds to assemble itself into a large meat monster looking for its nemesis, one Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), a popular television infomercial psychic.
Dave and John are amateur paranormal investigators who met a couple years out of high school. Dave was a jaded skeptic who met a Jamaican man known as Robert Marley (Tai Bennett) at a party. He was able to read Dave’s mind and this, understandably, rattles Dave as Rob espouses the notion that he can see into the future. These arcane insights into the universe come courtesy of a substance known as Soy Sauce, a black liquid that allows one to perceive time in non-linear fashion as well as alternate dimensions. Dave and John are eventually enlisted by Marconi to prevent a sentient organic computer known as Korrok from spreading his brand of evil across multiple dimensions.
Dave is the audience surrogate, taking us through this crazy world where he can be talking to John on the phone while his friend is dying in a nearby room (in a sly parody of a similar scene in David Lynch’s Lost Highway), or a man’s moustache can detach itself from its owner’s face and flutter around the room like a bat. In other words, some pretty crazy shit. Throughout it all, Dave tries to make sense of these other realities opened up to him thanks to the Soy Sauce. Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are well cast as Dave and John, grounding the film with their engaging performances. Each one of them brings a different energy with the former portraying Dave as a skeptic and the latter instilling John with an infectious optimism. It is a lot of fun to see them bouncing off eccentric characters played by the likes of Angus Scrimm, Clancy Brown and Paul Giamatti.
John Dies at the End is chock full of clever and amusing dialogue, like the police detective (Glynn Turman) that doesn’t believe in other dimensions, but does believe in hell: “The grease trap of the universe … It is not just some place down there. Oh no, it’s right here with us we just can’t perceive it. It’s kinda like the country music radio station. It’s out there in the air even if you don’t tune into it.” This is just a sample of the kind of wild observations and theories that run wild throughout this film making it more than just some instant cult film for stoners to mull over between bong hits. For an indie film, John Dies at the End looks as slick and polished as any studio effort. Coscarelli’s years of experience makes this film look more expensive than it is as he effortlessly shifts from comedy to horror to science fiction in a way that is very entertaining.
John Dies at the End started as a webserial written by Jason Pargin (under the pen name David Wong) that began appearing online in 2001. He described it as a “150,000-word novel for people who consider a 140-character tweet too much.” It was eventually edited into a manuscript and published in paperback form in 2007. Filmmaker Don Coscarelli discovered the book via Amazon.com’s “Amazon Recommends” function on their website. He read Pargin’s book, loved it, tracked down the author and bought the film rights. One of the things that drew Coscarelli to David Wong’s novel was that underneath the comedy and horror was “some philosophical thoughts running throughout that are quite captivating.” It tapped into his interest in multiple dimensions: “When I read these ideas from great sci-fi authors about inter-dimensional travel and then from the great scientists about multiple membrane universes layered on top of one another, I just find it compelling … when I can work those kinds of themes into a wacky horror film, all the better.”
Actor Paul Giamatti was a fan of Coscarelli’s films starting with Phantasm (1979) back when his brother snuck him in to see it as a kid. While in Prague filming The Illusionist (2006), he met director Eli Roth who was there making Hostel (2005). They talked about Giamatti filming a cameo, but it didn’t pan out and the actor told Roth how much of a fan he was of Coscarelli and how he would like to work with him. Roth knew Coscarelli and introduced the two men. They planned to work together on a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep. However, they couldn’t get financing for it and moved on to John Dies at the End. Coscarelli and Giamatti approached several major Hollywood studios for financing, but none of them understood the script and so they realized that independent backing was the way to go. Due to the film’s limited budget, Coscarelli cast two unknown actors as the leads. Both Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes had never acted in a feature film before, which was a bit of a risky gamble for Coscarelli, but he surrounded them with veteran actors like Clancy Brown and Giamatti. Williamson was a student in the University of Southern California’s drama department and on his first day of filming he had to do eight pages of dialogue with Giamatti!
John Dies at the End received mixed reviews from mainstream critics. In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “It has the loose, goofy feel of a project that a bunch of college students (or dropouts, in Dave’s case) might dream up during a long weekend of beer and bong hits. And yet at the same time it looks like a real movie – artfully shot, cleanly edited and very much in control of the laughs and scares that arise from its insanely convoluted set of premises.” The Village Voice’s Nick Pinkerton wrote, “The loquacity and temporally shuffled narrative is off-the-rack Tarantino; the bizarre mind-benders, ‘Lynchian’; the horror-comic asides combining the mundane and the fantastic, ‘Raimi-esque’; the grab bag borrowing of avant-garde techniques, straight up Natural Born Killers.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Flaked with offbeat witticisms, cheese ball effects and fanboy splatter gore, the surreal John Dies at the End has the vibe of a shaggy dog story, which works both for and against it.” Finally, Rolling Stone magazine gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and Peter Travers wrote, “Go for the freaky fun of it, though a little soy sauce on the side sure wouldn’t hurt.”
John Dies at the End is one of those films that you either dive in and go on the ride with, trusting that Coscarelli knows what he’s doing, or resist and give up – it’s a cinematic litmus test for one’s ability to deal with a lot of weirdness being thrown at you. It’s sink or swim time as the film doesn’t wait for you try and catch up. He’s always had a kinship for offbeat subject matter, be it a funeral home with a portal to another dimension in Phantasm or Elvis Presley teaming up with an elderly African American man who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy to stop an evil monster in Bubba Ho-Tep. John Dies at the End certainly fits comfortably in his wheelhouse as it refuses simple summarization, piling on one bizarro encounter after another. There’s a wonderful unpredictable energy to this film that is refreshing and makes all the soulless remakes and sequels look safe and tired by comparison.
Collis, Clark. “Paul Giamatti and Director Don Coscarelli Talk About Their Demented Horror-Comedy.” Entertainment Weekly. January 22, 2013.
Gencarelli, Mike. “Don Coscarelli Talks about John Dies at the End and Bubba Ho-Tep and Phantasm Sequels.” Media Mikes. April 9, 2013.
Labrecque, Jeff. “Sundance: Bubba Ho-Tep Director Back with a Vengeance.” Entertainment Weekly. January 24, 2012.
McIntyre, Gina. “John Dies at the End: Paul Giamatti, Don Coscarelli on Cult Cinema.” Los Angeles Times. January 22, 2013.
Pace, Dave. “Q+A: Don Coscarelli on John Dies and Independent Filmmaking for 30+ Years.” Fangoria. April 11, 2013.
Walton, Brian. “John Dies at the End’s Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli.” Nerdist. January 15, 2013.