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Entries in John Dies at the End [2012] (1)


John Dies at the End (2012)

Plum Sauce

I'd like to amend "The Top of '12" to include John Dies at the End, but I won't. Fifteen years ago, George Lucas gave the art world its greatest cautionary tale in his Star Wars: Special Edition trilogy, and I've resisted the urge to touch my past work ever since. Sure, I'll occasionally swap out a semicolon for a period when referencing a three-year-old review. But, for the most part, leaving those poorly constructed, rambling sentences alone is the only way to track my creative progress. 

If an artist is dissatisfied with a finished piece, the best remedy is to make a new one, inspired by and infused with lessons from his or her previous disaster. Not to imply that Don Coscarelli is ashamed of anything he's done, but imagine what would happen if he meddled with Phantasm or Bubba Ho-Tep using state-of-the-art digital effects--and then declared those the "official" versions, while keeping the originals from evolving with home video technology? I'll tell you what would happen: we'd be unable to appreciate John Dies at the End as the writer/director's most entertaining, accomplished film to date.

Picture Alan Moore re-writing Fight Club as a Donnie Darko "B" story set in the Buffyverse , and you'll come close to appreciating what Coscarelli pulled off in adapting David Wong's novel. The zig-zagging story about small-town slackers imbued with the secrets of the universe after taking a drug nicknamed "soy sauce" is packed with terrifying, endearing, hilarious ideas that jive perfectly with themes the filmmaker has dabbled in since the late 70s. One scene in particular, towards the end, finds the protagonists peering into another dimension that might as well be an alternate-reality version of The Tall Man's home world.

I'm getting way ahead of myself. Chase Williamson stars as Dave Wong, a jittery sauce-head who tells his outrageous life story to journalist Arnie Bloodstone (Paul Giamatti) over coffee. It's a hell of a tale: years ago, after being exposed to the drug, Dave and his best friend John (Rob Mayes) gained the ability to see creatures from other dimensions, experience time fluidly, and explore third-eye wonders that make normal life seem positively prehistoric. The movie focuses on the boys' origin story, which involves tracking down the body-hopping trans-dimensional emissary of a sentient lake of tentacled black goo.

On their adventure, they meet a psychic Rastafarian (Tai Bennett), an old cop on a mission from God (Glynn Turman), and a TV healer with genuine cosmic abilities (Clancy Brown). The boys also encounter raw-meat monsters; flying, razor-toothed slugs; and an inter-dimensional doorman named Roger North (Doug Jones*). It would be entertaining enough to watch these wonderful actors bring such crazy characters to life, but Coscarelli sweetens the pot with a timeline that necessitates an open, switched-on mind. Structurally, the movie plays as if it had overdosed on soy sauce, jumping from flashbacks to flash-forwards to side stories and back again--with characters dealing with events that haven't happened yet (or happened differently in this reality than in another...maybe. Kind of.).

That sounds confusing, and if you don't strap in right away, John Dies at the End might take off without you. Luckily, Williamson and Mayes make for awesome tour guides: their straight-man/trouble-prone-goofball chemistry is sweet and funny without being too obnoxious or too cute. Dave and John could easily be the center of an R-rated cable series, which I would absolutely obsess over. You might wonder how that would work, given the film's title; suffice it to say that once soy sauce enters the picture, beginnings and endings become as useless as a dance number in Jabba's palace (sorry, George, I'll stop poking).

It's so refreshing to see a genre legend leap back into the game and show all the hip, young music-video directors that the key to making classics is tons of heart and zero fear. Most of the last decade's horror remakes, sequels, and non-starter franchises have been lazy CGI demo reels with no one to relate to on-screen. Given Coscarelli's history with quirky-but-loyal male duos (from Mike and Reggie to Elvis and JFK), his obvious connection to the material made him the perfect guy to bring Dave and John's journey to the big screen. Where Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and Sean Cunningham seem content with executive-producing reboots of their star-making properties--or, worse yet, fumbling around in a genre they no longer understand--Coscarelli isn't afraid to get up to his elbows in fake blood and rubber limbs with Robert Kurtzman.

There's a chance that those weaned on slick horror and sci-fi won't appreciate the charming practical effects, the occasionally dodgy digital ones, or the two guilty-pleasure visual puns that kick off the story (I'll never think of "door knob" and "sausage fingers" in the same way). But I'm sure Ghostbusters had its detractors, too. I'd bet Don Coscarelli had a blast making this movie, and wanted everyone on set and in the audience to share his joy--without pandering to the texters and Tweeters among them. More than that, he seems to have felt like the best way to get people to read a book he's clearly passionate about was to make a hundred-minute infommercial for it. I'm no sucker for advertising, but the plan sure worked on me.

I grew up watching and loving Coscarelli's movies. To date, he's the one writer/director from my childhood who hasn't let me down. Of course, not every project is a masterpiece, but I never have to question his emotional investment in a project. He's a true artist, a seeker, and an innovator. John Dies at the End would be a fantastic debut for a young filmmaker. The fact that it comes from a seasoned pro gives me hope that my kid won't be stranded in a recycled genre wasteland.

Note: If you're in Chicago next weekend, be sure to swing by Chicago's historic Music Box Theatre. Mr. Coscarelli will host two nights of double-features, pairing John Dies at the End with Bubba Ho-Tep and Phantasm II on February 8th and 9th, respectively. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

*I recognized Doug instantly--not from his face, but his fingers. He may have the most distinct digits in the biz, and seeing them creep into frame reminded me of his "five love languages" speech from our interview a couple years back.