'John Dies at the End': Horror high jinks
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Back in the late 1950s, jazz masters Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie cut a session of hard bebop so advanced they titled the resultant album "For Musicians Only." "John Dies at the End," directed by Don Coscarelli and based on a novel (that had its roots in a website) by pseudonymous author David Wong, is a lively, darkly funny and sometimes inventive gorefest that could just as well be titled "For Horror/Sci-Fi Nerds Only."
Coscarelli is the maverick filmmaker behind the 1980s "Phantasm" movies, which mixed gothic scares with sci-fi dread and B-movie are-you-sure-it's-intentional humor. Never such innocence again, as the poet said, and "John Dies at the End," as its title implies, wears its post-"Phantasm," post-"Scream" knowingness on its sleeve while also, in a sense, rejecting that knowingness: As much as it delights in sending up horror movie conventions, it also believes in them.
Have I lost you yet? I hope not, but if I have, it may be kind of the point. The movie is narrated by its hero, also named David Wong (Chase Williamson), only he isn't Asian. His explanation for his name is as darkly absurdist as anything else in the film. After a prologue featuring decapitation and zombie depictions, David sits calmly in a Chinese restaurant, meeting with a journalist named Arnie (Paul Giamatti, who's also an executive producer of the movie) to tell him a very outlandish story. The twitchy, talky David tells his interlocutor, "I could blow your world away, Arnie. If I show you what's in this container you'll never feel at one with the human race until the day you die."
Starting his story in the middle -- only since the story involves time travel and multiple dimensions, linear placement of events isn't really the point here -- David describes an unusual call received by him and his college buddy John of the title (Rob Mayes). Initially, the two seem to be slacker Ghostbusters, complete with arcane black-arts weaponry, and they first battle a coed who morphs into a pile of snakes and then a monster made up of the contents of a meat locker. This monster turns out to be eager to fight the duo's mentor, a popular TV psychic named Marconi (Clancy Brown).
But wait, David tells the skeptical Arnie: Let me take you back to when it all began. And so he does, to two years earlier, at a college beer fest where a fortune-telling challenge evolves into something much weirder. "John Dies at the End" packs a helluva lot of horror absurdism into its giddily bouncing 99 minutes, most of its high jinks predicated by a psychotropic drug called ... wait for it ... Soy Sauce, which enables users to see into the future and into other dimensions. This knowledge is not always pleasant, as it "reveals" that sometimes the normal-looking people you're talking to are spider-crab-looking monsters from the aforementioned other dimensions.
Soon it gets a little difficult to distinguish one reality from another, and the viewer gets a good perspective on why poor David is so twitchy. It's tough to keep up, and if you're not a horror fan, it's hard to find a reason to keep up. If you are a horror fan, and one with a sense of humor, you'll likely be diverted by the "spawning pod things," exploding eyeballs and other outrageous effects, as well as the antic hopscotch of the movie's story line and the genial ineffectiveness of the two protagonists who are convinced they have to save humanity ... until they're not. At one point, during their eager-beaver phase, David and John travel to a dimension largely populated by topless women wearing face masks, and John comments, "We're in 'Eyes Wide Shut' world." If that joke strikes you as funny, you may well be the target audience for "John Dies at the End. " If not, you might want to go for something a little more conventional.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.