When I hear cult-auteur Don Coscarelli is working on a new film I get pretty excited, I read a synopsis and my excitement grows, Angus Scrimm (the Tall Man!) signs on for a cameo, and I find out the film is based on a book reputed to be “unfilmable”. I swoon.
What you’ll notice first is that Coscarelli hasn’t sabotaged his aesthetic in taking his closest step into the main stream; the general look of the film and its cast, which includes the fantastic Paul Giamatti, may scare away some seasoned fans of that garage-feel in his early films. Don’t fret however, there’s plenty of his usual nonsense crammed in John Dies at the End to make up for that.
If there was a genre called Fucking with the Future, or Unravelling the Universe, then John Dies would definitely be a perfect example; it ain’t time travel and it ain’t really anything else. You just have to see it and try to let it happen. Essentially it’s the story of a new street drug that pushes the boundaries of human physics, and how two friends are dragged into a mess of alien invasion through the drug, but it’s so much more. It’s like a more elaborate Phantasm on acid.
John Dies flaunts Coscarelli’s signature black camp humour (see Bubba ho-Tep), those tooling-up sequences he deploys in all his films, a general feel of bad-ass at more than a few points, and enough weird to do you the year. However, the film frequently threatens to be too bizarre for its own good and that will distance some viewers. At points it stretches patience, especially in the last twenty minutes where any idea of acceptable narrative seems to boil off and leave a multi-coloured, fantastical, and wholly silly residue. If you consider this amidst the context, then sure it pulls off. Time travel, supernatural encounters, aliens, and drugs, it’s difficult to criticise a film for being silly when there’s so much going on.
Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes hold their own throughout as Dave and John respectively, a pair of Coscarelli heroes if ever there was. Giamatti is great, as a wry and doubtful journalist, Doug Jones (he plays all your nightmares in del Toro films) pops up as an alien, and Clancy Brown plays an egocentric exorcist. Special mention goes to Glynn Turman as the cynical old-school detective caught up in something he doesn’t understand.
Earlier I mentioned context: that’s an important word when you consider Coscarelli’s CV. Don’t question his world too deeply: you won’t get answers, don’t pull a ridiculous face when things get crazy because I promise they will get weirder. Sit back and watch, enjoy, savour every stupid moment courtesy of a sharp script and a director obviously having the time of his life.
The embodiment of the “Marmite Film”, John Dies at the End will polarise audiences and perhaps even Coscarelli fans. It is entirely unforgiving in its embracement of the bizarre: silly at times, hilarious at others, conceptually intriguing, and above all entertaining. Miss it if you dare.
Director: Don Coscarelli
Stars: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Angus Scrimm, Doug Jones