John Dies at the End Reviews
The threat of apocalypse no longer holds consequence enough; for director Don Coscarelli's modern film "John Dies at the End," fabricated realities sit worse with its cast of misfits, slackers, and interstellar beings than the so-called "End of the World as We Know It."
It was a midnight movie at the Sundance Film Festival, and it did not disappoint. Buckle your seat belt if you get the chance to see this one, because there are lots of twists, turns, and unexpected surprises. "Soy Sauce", a drug that lets its user break the rules of time and space, enthralls slacker friends David and John. One dose becomes a catalyst of what is to become a nightmarish journey, beginning with hyper-acute psychic abilities, and ending with summoned hell-spawn from portals tucked in the shadows. Rationality? Never heard of it. For as far as Dave and John are concerned the universe as they knew it, is no more.
A desperate journalist named Arnie attempts to find some answers, but as present-day David recounts his surreal exploits in a grimy Chinese restaurant, the quest for truth instead leads down a path of insane and delusional adventures. The film flourishes in its purposeful chaos, enhancing bit of gore with an equivalent dose of laughter. This is nowhere more apparent than in the film's opening sequence, a whirling philosophical riff by David on whether a zombie skewering axe - thrice repaired - can still be considered the same weapon. This is a clear reference to the Theseus raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object; thus letting you know the kind of thinking the movie has in store for its audience.
At its finest, John rides this charming fusion of ideas and goofy fun; there are recurring nods to the two-faced deceitful nature of everyday perception, a classical trope in sci-fi, but rarely done with such an exciting sense of empathy and charm, especially with such a limited budget. How does one react when told they're simply the hallucinations of someone else? As Coscarelli shows, first with a chuckle, and then a creeping realization of horror.
The two leads try their best to rein in the narrative. Relatable yet maintaining an unsteady smirk throughout, two fresh faces who snugly fit the traditional (and watchable) buddy dynamic. Dave especially delights, embodying that peculiar quality in your most untrustworthy friend: unreliable for a ride, but essential if the world should ever face annihilation. Other methods of exposition come from Dave telling his story to Arnie, and most comically, a talking dog.
Coscarelli pulls back and opts for greater eccentricities and divergent oddities. He's attempting something of grand ambition even if it means sacrificing coherence in the process. As David and John jump dimensions one wisecrack at a time, the narrative crumbles. Crammed full of plot digressions that reach unresolved plateaus, our main story, David's fight against predetermination and identity fails to establish any lingering stakes. Seemingly vital twists occur then later on, any interest vanishes, as significance or gravity are pulverized into pop-culture tropes.
To date, I've remained unexposed to Pargis and his work under the fitting pseudonym David Wong, but what Coscarelli's achieved doesn't feel like an adaptation. It feels more like he seems he skimmed the source material, burned it, and then assembled a vague recollection on film after three days of untold indulgences. It would be quite a shock to hear that the film is entirely faithful to Wong's original story.
A cult following seems to be the audience the film desires, but often, those pre-programmed genre entries wind up in the nether regions of Netflix. I hope Coscarelli's strange concoction escapes that fate, though. He knows how to exploit horror/sci-fi tropes and adeptly meld a practical effect with a well-timed gag.
This film is a riot from beginning to end, with joke after joke coming, constantly hitting the mark. It's immature humor (usually having to do with cursing or body parts) helps break the constant uncomfortable mood/feel being built on itself throughout the entire film. Main characters Dave and John are great, and share a very real-feeling camaraderie, though the same can't be said for many of the side characters who don't feel completely fleshed-out.
The fast-moving cinematography and overall feel of this film is reminiscent of what one might feel while watching The Matrix (1999), even down to both main characters [Dave/Neo] having the ability to know everything going on, but haven't fully realized how to use it, continuing their learning. The last 1/3rd of the film however is where the movie drops off. Everything is easy to play along with until the major sci-fi themes start to play into it. Though I wouldn't say the last third ruins it, by any means.