Let me just put it out there; you either like this kind of movie, or you don’t, and there’s an easy way to tell if you’ll like this one. John Dies at the End begins with a riddle. The riddle scene is completely self-contained; doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie, except it also captures perfectly the movie’s style and approach. It involves decapitation, and the axe with which it was performed. It takes about 90 seconds. I honestly don’t know the answer to the riddle. I watched it with my daughter, and when that first 90 seconds was over, we both jumped out of our chairs exclaiming stuff like ‘holy freak, that was awesome!’ And we both loved the rest of the movie. Other family members were less enthusiastic, and didn’t stick around. So, honestly, give it 90 seconds, and you’ll know.
And also, SPOILER: John either does, or does not die at the end. It’s actually closer to the middle, and it doesn’t seem permanent. But that’s a great title, is it not? Or not?
John Dies at the End is based on a novel by David Wong, who also writes for Cracked.com, and is not, in any sense, Asian. It’s directed by one of the great
nutbag kooks imaginative innovators of contemporary cinema, Don Coscarelli, otherwise known for the four films of the Phantasm horror series, and also such films as Beastmaster and (I love this movie) Bubba Ho-Tep, in which Elvis and JFK, both still alive and living in nursing homes, fight an ancient Mummy.
Dave Wong is also the name of the main character in the movie, played by a guy named Chase Williamson, who I think was an acting student at USC when he got cast in this, and who has essentially no other IMDB credits. But he’s great; sort of looks permanently bemused and put-upon. John (Rob Mayes) is his best friend. John and Dave have apparently dropped out of college to pursue a career as ghost busters. Paranormal investigators. Because two years previously, they got involved in some seriously weird stuff. And Dave feels compelled to tell his story to Paul Giamatti, playing a reporter named Arnie Blondestone. So that’s the conceit; we’re seeing these events from two years ago play out as Dave tells Arnie the story.
Two years ago, then, Dave attended a rave, where he met a psychic Jamaican drug dealer named Robert Marley. The rave was also attended by Dave’s amputee girlfriend, Amy (Fabienne Therese), her dog, Bark Lee, John, a hip-hop spewing blonde kid named Justin (Jonny Weston), and an Asian kid named Fred, (played by an actor named Jimmy Wong, and no, I don’t know for certain that they didn’t cast an actor with that name as some kind of inside meta-cinematic joke). The rave ended badly, with everyone dying of some new street drug called soy sauce, which probably isn’t a drug at all, but an advanced alien species. When we see the drug, anyway, it’s black and sentient-looking. Anyway, John was among those killed, which is why Dave thinks it’s disconcerting to keep getting calls from him on his cell phone. A detective (Glynn Turman) is busy investigating the deaths, and is spooked when the bodies don’t seem to want to stay dead. They’re being re-animated, turns out, by the evil overlord of an alternate Earth, Korrok, out to conquer our earth. I mean, he’s called Korrok, what else would he want?
Oh, yeah, there’s also a TV psychic, Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), who never goes anywhere without his two female assistants and sort of shows up at random times. Marconi has built a bomb that he thinks can destroy Korrok, if only we could cross inter-dimensionally to Korrok’s world. Which turns out to be possible, crossing over, as there’s a ghost door located in the mall of the dead. And so when John is re-animated by the dog, he and Dave (and the dog) volunteer to go do that, take out Korrok, armed with a bomb and also a baseball bat festooned with Bible quotes.
Far and away the most heroic character in the movie, BTW, is the dog. Bark Lee kind of walks off with the movie. Like, the dog can drive Dave’s car, and does, one of the (many) times Dave needs to be rescued.
Oh, I forgot the bratwurst phone. At one point, Dave’s cell phone breaks, shattered in a fight with a one-armed cop. But he still needs to communicate with John, who, though dead, keeps calling him. So he buys a bratwurst from a street vendor, and that functions just fine as a phone.
Oh, I forgot the meat monster. Yeah, there’s also a monster made from all the different kinds of meat in a freezer, so you see all this meat on the floor assemble itself into a scary dude. That’s the kind of creature John and Dave deal with, you know, professionally.
Oh, and Paul Giamatti seems to think he’s a black guy, which he’s not. I think he’s actually a space alien, though that was not made entirely clear. And there’s a massive space spider hanging around, that you can’t see directly but can see using peripheral vision. Not quite sure what that’s about, but it’s pretty cool looking. Oh, and I forgot the woman whose body explodes and turns into snakes. And on Korrok’s planet, all the people wear masks for some reason, but not, as it happens, clothes. This is likewise not explained.
What we have, in other words, is a very strange movie, one which I enjoyed inordinately, but which may not actually be your cup of ginseng. I went on Rotten Tomatoes, and found it had a score of 60, which seems about right, with an audience score of 57, which likewise. (What those scores don’t measure, though, is passion). I think this is one of those Donnie Darko/Evil Dead/Scott Pilgrim/Revolver/Sucker Punch things, which you totally geek out on if you’re the kind of person who geeks out on
self-indulgent and gratuitously weird wildly imaginative sci-fi/horror kinds of things. This one has lots of heads blown to pieces and lots of slithery gross looking monsters, which are not scary but examples of its seriously warped and off-beat humor. I thought it was hilarious, and mind-bending and wonderful. Your mileage may vary. My daughter and I both completely loved it. But seriously, if the first 90 seconds doesn’t grab you, don’t bother with the rest of it. You won’t like it.