From its spoileriffic title through to its bizarre left-field climax, writer-director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) gleefully taps into the irreverent, self-referencing tone of Big Trouble in Little China, Buckaroo Banzai, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and throws minor inconveniences such as coherence, linear storytelling, and plot plausibility under the bus in favor of rampant farce and cheap thrills — and that’s a good thing.
Based on Jason Pargin’s novel (published under the pseudonym “David Wong”) of the same name, it mostly focuses on a guy named Dave (Chase Williamson), the best friend of the aforementioned doomed John (Rob Mayes). We’re introduced to Dave when he sits down with a reporter (Paul Giamatti) to tell the tale of a vast conspiracy involving parallel universes, ghosts, killer insects, mind-control, time travel, a psychic Rastafarian, a New Age guru (Clancy Brown), a girl with a prosthetic hand, a mysterious drug called “soy sauce”, lots and lots of grisly homicides, and just about everything else.
Dave and John are thrust into the whole mess and tasked with saving the universe. Two of the biggest slackers you’ll ever meet, they’re not the heroes we want, or the ones we need, they’re just the ones we’re stuck with.
Yep, it sounds like something a couple of very stoned and very bored college kids might have brainstormed over on a Wednesday night, but that’s part of its charm. It’s thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, with performances are often hilariously deadpan. Coscarelli wholeheartedly embraces the story’s inherent anarchy and absurdity and rolls with it, unabashedly delivering a steady stream of 100 minutes-worth of ridiculousness with feeling the urge to pander to audience expectations or tone down this live-action cartoon fever dream.
What’s more, Coscarelli is also a veteran filmmaker, and while he knows not to take the story seriously, he does treat the craft as such. The movie is skillfully shot and edited and as well-paced as the material can be without sacrificing spontaneity in the process. The only time John Dies at the End betrays its low-budget charms is during its climax, a protracted sequence that required more effects than the shoestring budget could manage. On the upside, that only adds to the weirdness.
Note: John Dies at the End is showing exclusive at the Texas Theatre through Sunday, February 10, along with screenings of Coscarelli’s cult-classic Phantasm.