Friday, January 25, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

(US - 2012)

Written and directed by Don Coscarelli.  Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Angus Scrimm, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett, Allison Weissman, Bark Lee. (R, 99 mins)

JOHN DIES AT THE END, the first film from cult director Don Coscarelli (PHANTASM, THE BEASTMASTER) since 2003's BUBBA HO-TEP, is based on the online serial-turned-2007 novel by Cracked.com editor and contributor David Wong, the pen name of writer Jason Pargin.  The result is a twisty, trippy, free-wheeling, almost anything goes film that couldn't have been conceived as anything other than a prefab midnight movie.  It's too easy to say it's for the stoner crowd, but yeah, it'll get a lot of love there.  Filled with more concepts than it can handle, JOHN DIES AT THE END is pretty hit or miss:  many jokes land with a thud or probably read better on the page, but there's some very imaginative ideas throughout and when it hits, it's very good.  While it plays very much like BILL & TED'S NAKED LUNCH, Wong's source writing and Coscarelli's script make some intriguing observations about things like perception, fate, reality, the origin of the universe...there's a lot to absorb here.

The heroes--David Wong (Chase Williamson) and his buddy John (Rob Mayes) are sort-of "spiritualist exorcists" who specializing in exterminating beings from other dimensions who have crossed over into our world (such as a Meat Monster that assembles itself out of frozen cuts of meat).  David tells his story to journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti, who also co-produced), and establishes his credibility by knowing how much change Arnie has in his pocket, right down to the years on the pennies, and rattling off intimate details of a dream Arnie had the night before.  David and John are able to open doors to other worlds and traverse dimensions, and can remember things that have yet to take place.  It all stems from a drug called Soy Sauce, which John obtained from a Jamaican named Robert Marley (Tai Bennett).   John is able to physically be in one place with David while calling David on his cell from another point in time and space (David to Phone John: "I'm here with you."  Phone John: "Ok, say hello to me for me!").  When a bunch of their friends die after OD-ing on Soy Sauce, the pair are arrested by irate detective Appleton (Glynn Turman).  John dies while in custody, but manages to call David from another point in time and talk him out of the police station after he's attacked by another cop's living mustache.  David is able to communicate with the dead John through a bratwurst that becomes a makeshift cell phone, and eventually teams up with a few friends (and John, whose body is present from another time or dimension--or at least, it's perceived as John) to do battle with a multi-dimensional Lovecraftian demon called Korrok, with the portal to this other realm located behind a ghost door in an abandoned shopping mall.  Of course, they have trouble entering this alternate universe because the ghost door has a "ghost knob."

With the dead John repeatedly reappearing in slightly different form (and an opening sequence involving David's axe that has a replacement blade and a year later, a replacement handle, which begs the question "Is it the same axe?"), Wong's story and Coscarelli's adaptation of it are addressing the perception of things--life, death, reality--and the Soy Sauce doesn't necessarily cause insanity, as is initially believed, but rather, it enhances the perception of reality for the user.  These multi-dimensional demons (one is known as "Shitload") are always here...they just can't be seen with the naked eye and the Soy Sauce allows that. 

The Meat Monster
So yeah, JOHN DIES AT THE END is a rather unique piece of work, blending elements of Lovecraft, George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and yes, even Coscarelli's own PHANTASM.  The film is smart and frustrating in equal measures, sometimes brilliantly clever, other times annoyingly tedious, and some of the jokes tank (the bratwurst one just flatlines), but its good qualities outweigh the not-so-good (how can you not like a spiked bat wrapped in pages from the Old Testament? Or David going through a portal and finding a newspaper dated February 37th, 5189?).  And it's simply too bizarre to just dismiss.  While it's messy and chaotic and most definitely not for everyone, followers of strange cinema will find a lot to sift through and discuss here.  If nothing else, it proves Coscarelli, usually boxed in as a "horror guy" because of the PHANTASM series, is a unique voice in cult cinema and should be heard from more than once a decade.

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