Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writer: Don Coscarelli, David Wong
Producer: Brad Baruh, Don Coscarelli, Andy Meyers, Roman Perez
Stars: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Paul Giamatti
Two friends and a dog must save mankind from an otherworldly invasion after a sentient drug called Soy Sauce infects users by granting strange psychic abilities.
“John Dies at the End,” or “JDATE” for those who prefer an affectionate abbreviation, is such a psychotropic joyride through horrifyingly imaginative ideas about time, space, and multidimensional alien takeovers that describing it in the limited terms available on this Earth does it a disservice. JDATE begins by posing a hypothetical question about a resilient zombie, a grotesque space slug, and a hand axe that just cannot keep it together. Anyone left scratching his/her head after these first three minutes will still have that itch for the next hour and a half. But anyone cracking a smile when the riddle is revealed can buckle up for that aforementioned joyride.
Describing buddies Dave and John as slackers would not be quite accurate. Regardless of their slightly disheveled college kid appearances, they know how to step up when it comes time to battle interplanetary forces and demonic veal cutlets. A sentient alien drug dubbed “Soy Sauce” has the somewhat desirable side effect of granting transcendent psychic abilities such as remembering events that have not yet happened. What the drug’s users do not know is that they are actually playing host to the machinations of an otherworldly monster determined to rule the planet. Guess who stands in that monster’s way?
Rob Mayes plays John as a more manic Jerry O’Connell while Chase Williamson’s Dave is a more subdued Topher Grace. Together, the duo takes the reins of a sometimes unsteady jalopy and grounds the far out fantasy with a touch of reality that is surprisingly relatable.
Writer/director Don Coscarelli paces the script, based on Justin Pargin’s novel, with a staccato mania that hardly takes a breath. Save for a brief musical interlude during a party scene, there is rarely more than a 10 second gap between lines of dialogue, exchanged at a rate of witticism that would make Trapper and Hawkeye proud. Even scenes of Dave recounting his tale for reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) while seated in a Chinese restaurant take on a frenetic urgency. Their sweat-beaded foreheads stare each other down while sorting out impossible revelations that Arnie wants to believe, even if his rational mind tells him otherwise. His rapt attention echoes the audience’s while everyone eagerly anticipates the next brain-teasing tidbit of mindbending forbidden knowledge.
JDATE is brimming with ideas that it literally cannot afford to realize. Sadder than the prospect of an impending apocalypse is the dawning notion that JDATE is felled by the arrow of its production checkbook. That Coscarelli even attempted such a broadly imaginative narrative despite missing a zero in the bank account is admirable. Though there are places in the story where wild thoughts burst at seams that are quickly sewn up due to necessity. A good film could have been exceptional if it had the ability to take off its leash and run in every direction it pointed.
Being no stranger to wild ideas on restrictive budgets, Coscarelli still shows his talent for making lemonade by finding inventive ways to wring out a penny like a soaked sponge, and uncovers humor in the process. The meat monster with a turkey head and hot dog sinew is one of the most memorable and original creatures in any recent horror film. Substituting a giant spider massacre with a creative cartoon not only tackles the visual presentation challenge, but the animated diversion adds unique opportunities for comedy. In some ways, the budgetary drawbacks evident on certain FX almost fit the movie’s tone. Green screen halos that would make George Lucas cringe have a charm befitting Dave and John’s rough-edged personalities. And the personality of JDATE, as well.
Like Dave and John, “John Dies at the End” is so likeable that it is hard not to forgive it for being occasionally unreliable. Ire at good friends is usually short-lived, and that is the case here, too. Keeping with that metaphor, “John Dies at the End” is like that friend who shows up at midnight and says, “get in the car” without telling you the destination. Although annoyed by having to get out of bed and entertain a borderline mental case, part of you is thankful that you even know someone out of the ordinary who can inject a breath of adventure into an otherwise dull life. Sometimes you just have to throw average to the wind and take a chance on experiencing something uniquely entertaining.
Review Score: 85