John Dies at the End (**½)

john_dies_at_the_end_ver2It’s only the beginning of January, but I feel confident in saying that writer/director Don Coscarelli’s new film ‘John Dies at the End’ will wind up one of the most unique movies of the year. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s an especially good flick, but it’s got some major balls, and I do give partial credit for that. Parts of the film are genuinely inspired and recall the near brilliance of Coscarelli’s prior work, the cult classic ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’. On the other hand, however, there’s far too many moments where things feel half baked or hamstrung by either the bizarre source material or the small scale budget. I have no doubt that Coscarelli stretched those few dollars in creative ways, but the sometimes dodgy CGI does him no favors. Aside from a fun supporting turn by Paul Giamatti, the acting isn’t anything to write home about either. There’s a definite camp quality to this flick, and it’s tailor made to be a cult favorite going forward. I do wish the movie was a little bit easier to recommend though, as I really wanted to like it. I certainly didn’t dislike it, but I have too many issues with it to give a full recommendation. You guys will get to see it in a few weeks, but for now, take my word for just how odd this thing is.

Befitting a mind-fuck like this one, the story drops us right into things without any real setup. College dropouts Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) appear to be some sort of ghostbusters, but they’re rather ho-hum about it. More interesting to them is a new drug out in their town called “Soy Sauce”. It has qualities one can only dream about, and as Dave learns firsthand from John, it can be a real killer. With the latter sort of on another plane of existence, the former has to navigate the here and now. For certain people, the drug just takes them to other places and times, but for others…they wind up as literal monsters. when John disappears and Dave accidentally gets hooked on the sauce, the stage is set for one of the oddest experiences you’ll likely see this year. Dave is telling the story to Arnie the reporter (Giamatti) in an almost empty Chinese restaraunt, but he’s a quintessential unreliable narrator, so how much of his story can we believe? Not a whole lot of the plot made sense to me, but a good chunk of it was a good bit of fun, so there’s that…

John-Dies-at-the-End_10As mentioned above, the acting isn’t exactly a strength for the flick. Paul Giamatti is the best of the bunch, but he’s under-utilized and essentially has an extended cameo here. The star of the film is Chase Williamson, but he’s not someone who can carry a whole movie on his own. Williamson has some nice reactions to the strange goings on, but he’s not the strongest of actors. Rob Mayes has a zany quality to him, but he’s hardly a difference maker here. I liked Mayes more than Williamson, but not by too much. They both pale in comparison to Giamatti. Clancy Brown has an amusing, if tiny, part as a magician the boys have a working relationship with, while Jonny Weston, Fabianne Therese, and Glynn Turman all have parts of note as well. You’re 100% not seeing this movie for the acting, but Paul Giamatti is the most enjoyable of the cast, even if he should have been in it more.

Filmmaker Don Coscarelli brings a unique style to an already unique premise, and while the results are mixed, this sci-fi/horror/comedy hybrid definitely has its own voice. I liked his writing more than his direction here, but a lot of that is due to budget limitations. With a few million more, I feel like the visuals (which are often memorable) would have looked even better and might have made up for some of the oddities in the script. He’s well suited to the material, but the execution is a bit off. Things are a little unfocused on the screenplay level, but it’s always unpredictable, which I like. Coscarelli is a talented writer and director, so I’m usually interested in a project of his. This one isn’t his best, but I don’t regret seeing it at all.

You have to give Coscarelli a load of credit for even attempting a project like this one. The book already has a small, if devoted following, so it wasn’t an adaptation built for success to begin with. Coscarelli has found a niche audience before, and he likely will again here. I didn’t love ‘John Dies at the End’, but I didn’t dislike it with any intensity either. When the movie comes out at the end of the month, those of you curious about it will get your chance to feast your eyes on his hybrid flick. Don’t be scared off by a possible spoiler in the title (I won’t tell you if it’s accurate or not), if you’re into the idea of this film. Just keep your expectations low and you’ll likely have a decent time…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!