Title: John Dies at the End
Directed By: Don Coscarelli
Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong
“John Dies at the End” shouldn’t be a good movie. The narrative is just way too off the rails, there’s nearly no reasoning behind most of the plot points and the large majority of the visual effects are rather rough, but the power of smart and deeply dedicated filmmaking takes over and writer-director Don Coscarelli manages to lead his cast and crew through to an undeniably entertaining end product.
David Wong (Chase Williamson) is far from a golden boy, but he’s your pretty average slacker – that is until he comes in contact with “the sauce.” One night David and his buddy John (Rob Mayes) go to a party. John’s rocking out with his band while David’s moseying around, drinking his beer. He spots a jerk named Justin White (Johnny Weston) teasing Amy Sullivan (Fabianne Therese) about her prosthetic hand, and after rescuing said prosthetic hand, Amy tells David her dog bit some Jamaican guy and ran off. David tracks down the Jamaican guy who gives David the creeps by reading a recent dream and making him puke up a living bug. That’s enough for one night; David calls it quits, heads home and crashes.
Later that night, David’s awoken by a frantic call from John so he heads over to his place to check on him. Sure enough, John’s off his mind, running around his trashed apartment in his underwear. David tracks down the culprit, a syringe filled with a black liquid, and takes it and his deranged friend to the hospital. Trouble is, that black liquid’s got a mind of its own and David doesn’t make it very far before feeling the effects of the soy sauce himself.
Is your head spinning yet? If not, you’ll probably dig “John Dies at the End.” If it is, you still might dig it, too. This movie isn’t for everyone, but thanks to Coscarelli’s careful and thoughtful adaptation of David Wong’s book, it’s got a good shot at appealing to a wider audience than it should.
He establishes the film’s wildly unique tone and unusually structured narrative right from the start, opening with an odd riddle that stands on its own, almost along the lines of a short film. The riddle doesn’t entirely make sense and also doesn’t have a straightforward answer, but if it makes you even the slightest bit curious, the full feature will likely have the same effect. Taking a cue from that mini-movie opening, “John Dies at the End” runs with a time jumping narrative that has its benefits, namely that opening scenario and a curious battle with a monster made of raw meat, but also can make the rest of the piece a little less accessible. Even though the events of the film are stitched together through scenes during which David narrates his crazy adventures for a feature reporter named Arnie (Paul Giamatti), it’s still tough to figure out what happens when. Assuming you don’t get too frustrated, once you hit the party portion of the film, it’s a pretty straight shot from there.
Coscarelli’s transitions from David during his soy sauce adventure to David telling Arnie about it and back again are seamless and offer up an effective multi-dimensional view of our lead. “John Dies at the End” is a little bit of everything – comedy, horror, action and more – and David’s at the center of it all so Williamson’s ability to deliver a main character that perfectly complements the tone Coscarelli created is key to making this universe coalesce. David is clearly a very different person pre and post soy sauce, but Williamson keeps enough of the character intact to make David easy to track even through the most maniacal situations.
Williamson is the heart of the film, but Coscarelli surrounds him with a league of outrageous characters all of which are eccentric to a pitch-perfect degree thanks to top-notch talent. Mayes makes for a ridiculous albeit loveable sidekick, delivering an over-the-top oddball comedic/action hero performance that he absolutely nails thanks to on-point timing. With the boys battling the meat monster, a flying moustache, and this weird chest-sucking slug thing, it’s a wonder how a simple table conversation between Williamson and Giamatti can make such a profound impression. Even when discussing the most outrageous things, the two share such a natural chemistry it’s remarkably immersive, and even makes you consider both perspectives. One minute you’re in Arnie’s shoes, struggling with disbelief, but then you’re on David’s side, fighting to convince Arnie that all this absurdity is real.
Unfortunately, the one element the film never manages to sell is the crux of the story, the fact that the world could come to an end. One drop of soy sauce leads to the next and ultimately John and David are tasked with saving the planet, but it never registers, so you never really care. In fact, even after a second watch, you still might have a tough time figuring out how soy sauce plus a white bug-like man-eating swarm leads to Korrok. But then again, if questions like those are bugging you when the credits roll, you likely never made it that far along anyway.
“John Dies at the End” isn’t here to make sense or say anything weighty about teen drug use, the existence of alternate universes or even honoring the call to save the world. This movie should be way too wacky to be funny or engrossing, but it is because Coscarelli and co. knew the best possible ways to allocate their resources, they assembled the ideal cast and, most importantly, managed to strike a solid balance between the honest and outrageous.