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Dave Wong (Chase Williamson) meets reporter
Arnie Blandstone (Paul Giamatti) late one night in an empty Chinese restaurant.
Dave has a story to tell, about the intravenous ichor nicknamed “soy sauce,”
and how this strange new drug can allow users to see through time and
communicate with the dead.
Before Arnie’s night is over, he’ll hear
the details of how Dave and friend John (Rob Mayes) used the sauce to combat
carnivorous slugs, an interdimensional invasion and a monster built entirely
out of frozen dinner meats. And as the coils of Dave’s weird tale spool around
Arnie and gradually pull tighter, it becomes apparent that Arnie really isn’t
going to like how this story ends…
As can probably be gleaned from the above
summary, JOHN DIES AT THE END, director Don Coscarelli’s long-gestating
follow-up to his acclaimed BUBBA HO-TEP (the final cut was a world premiere at
the Toronto International Film Festival, with Magnet Releasing handling U.S.
release late this year/early 2013), is best categorized as a comedy/horror
rather than horror/comedy. Coscarelli doesn’t play things quite as square here
as he did with BUBBA; scary is very much a secondary intention. And that’s OK;
JOHN DIES (based on the novel by David Wong) is at its best when our pair of
likable heroes are spouting their abundant wisecracks while navigating some
ridiculous sci-fi situation or sight gag.
The two debutant leads are talented finds,
and hold their own against heavy screen presences like Giamatti and the great,
gruff Clancy Brown, with Mayes in particular demonstrating a deft sense of
timing and some hilarious line deliveries. Oscar nominee Giamatti, who also
served as a producer on the film, classes up the joint as the rumpled, doubting
Arnie—while quietly adding to what has become an admirable horror résumé (he
has now been directed by Coscarelli, David Cronenberg and Rob Zombie)—and it’s
a treat to see veteran actor Glynn Turman (from GREMLINS and SUPER 8) pop up in
a substantial role. A fine job of casting by Coscarelli, and the balance
between the energetic newbies and screen vets works out splendidly.
As is appropriate for a film about
mind-ballooning drug use, the occasionally disorienting visuals and elaborate
out-of-sequence plot will require some determination on the audience’s part to
keep pace—a level of focus to which a younger comedy audience might not be
willing to commit. In fact, some of the humor sprouts from just how knotted up
the film’s storyline becomes. Solid practical work by ex-KNB honcho Robert
Kurtzman in envisioning the bizarre succession of creatures adds rubbery retro
fun, while the choppy digital FX and the amateurish greenscreen backgrounds
during the climax most certainly do not. Coscarelli was obviously sweating to
massage a pipsqueak budget to meet the demands of JOHN DIES’ grand scope (as
sketched out in Wong’s novel), with its multidimensional escapades and massive
Lovecraftian tentacle monsters, and it’s too bad that the CGI falters under the
JOHN DIES is not the instantly heartwarming
crowd-pleaser that BUBBA HO-TEP was, nor the hallucinatory waking nightmare
that the PHANTASM films were during their finest moments. It is instead a very
funny, very trippy experience with an atypical DONNIE DARKO-as-a-sitcom angle,
and JOHN DIES will earn its cult. It likely won’t reach the mass-appeal heights
of Coscarelli’s other work due to the convoluted story, but any detractors
should at least respect that one of horror’s old guard is continuing to evolve his
style, challenging his audience and refusing to repeat himself.
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