NOTE: John Dies at the End has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the official Certified Weird entry is here.
DIRECTED BY: Don Coscarelli
FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones
PLOT: A young paranormal investigator relates his strange and twisted backstory to a skeptical reporter. It involves alien creatures, a drug that gives its users heightened senses and psychic abilities, and a parallel universe whose twisted denizens are edging their way into our own.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its labyrinthine plot and genre-bending themes make John Dies at the End an interesting experience, with plenty of bizarre characters and twists, but at times the film is just weird for the sake of being weird, forsaking good storytelling in the process.
COMMENTS: Blending the well-worn motifs of alien invasion, inter-dimensional travel, and the over-confidence of youth into a heady concoction of oddities, John Dies at the End isn’t easy to summarize, or even encapsulate. The narrative flits back and forth erratically as Dave (Chase Williamson) attempts to communicate his experiences to a bemused journalist played by Paul Giamatti. It all starts—sort of—with a late-night phone call from Dave’s excitable friend John (Rob Mayes), whose ingestion of an out-of-this-world drug known as “Soy Sauce” sends him down a time-traveling, mind-reading, future-predicting rabbit hole. Dave accidentally takes some Soy Sauce himself, and soon he is escaping from a hardened police detective (Glynn Turman) who suspects him of several gruesome murders, while trying to save John and two other high school friends who’ve been kidnapped by a demonic being from an alternate universe. And then a lot of other stuff happens, but not always in chronological order.
Without prior knowledge of the webserial/novel this is based on, John Dies at the End can only be a surprise. It rapidly transitions between wry humor, gross-out gore, paranormal mystery, hallucinatory freak-outs, and sci-fi adventure, all set amidst general confusion. This is the type of film that was made to be a cult classic, with little hope for or interest in appealing to a wide audience. At times this obvious intention to be weird means that the film’s comedic and mystery elements are sacrificed for nonsense, but if you’re looking for straight-up bizarre then it’s not a huge loss. The low-quality special effects are mostly excused by unique visual ideas and some well-placed animation.
With its nonlinear narrative structure and consuming focus on strange happenings, the film doesn’t spend too much time developing characters, and as the protagonist Dave is a little weak: for the most part Williamson just shows off his “Sarcastic Inner Monologue” expression or various reaction faces. He and Mayes are both very regular-seeming guys, the kind you probably knew in high school or college. They are surrounded by a charismatic supporting cast, including the lovably loudmouth Giamatti, the imposing Clancy Brown, the hardcore Glynn Turman, and the naturally creepy Doug Jones. Shuffled about by an intricate story and ever-uncertain motivations, they seem to relish the script’s absurdities.
John Dies at the End is uneven as a whole, driven to episodic distraction with an abundance of half-realized subplots and unanswered questions, but it has a way of worming itself into the brain that results in a kind of fascination. The twisted creatures, unexpected sight gags, colorful settings, and surreal visions create an idiosyncratic aesthetic that’s as funny as it is fantastic. Frozen meat comes to life, mustaches fly through the air, headless zombies attack, alien bugs take over unsuspecting drunk teenagers… By the time Dave and John leap into an alternate dimension populated by nude figures with eerie masks ruled by a giant hyper-intelligent spider monster, I was convinced of its Weirdness.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Everybody pretty much gets weird throughout this trippy head-shaker of a movie. It’s hard to be sure if the film adds up logically — seems doubtful — but it’s so bizarre you don’t much care.” –Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)
8 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)”
Aouch ! “Weird for the sake of being weird”. You have pronounced the forbidden sentence. It’s Evil Dead all over again !
Nothing more constructive to say, sorry. Didn’t see that movie. Seems fun.
In Alex’ defense she does not use the “forbidden phrase” “weird for the sake of weird” as a brain dead way of saying “weird = bad,” she qualifies it with “forsaking good storytelling in the process” and “the film’s comedic and mystery elements are sacrificed for nonsense.”
I completely agree with G. Smalley! I haven’t actually seen the movie – that doesn’t seem to be possible yet in Region 2, and I’m not sure I really want to. But lots of bad films make the mistake of assuming that, once you’re in the “weird movie” mindset, that means you can just do any old thing. As the legendary comedy jazzman Spike Jones once said, any fool can replace an F sharp with a gunshot, but it isn’t funny unless it’s an F sharp gunshot. And to quote the equally legendary fantasy author Michael Moorcock, the one inescapable difference between good and bad fantasy is internal consistency.
In a David Lynch film, for example, you always have the feeling that everything happens for a reason, even if you aren’t told what that reason is. Whereas in a complete mess like [i]Highlander II[/i], things blatantly happen for no reason other than to get them out of a plot-hole. It’s not minor fanboy nit-picking to feel a bit disconcerted when a character who has been dead for hundreds of years literally reappears out of thin air just so that Sean Connery’s name can be on the poster! And in another franchise, there’s the infamous moment when lazy scriptwriters decided that since Superman is basically God, he can rebuild the Great Wall of China by looking at it.
The description above kind of suggests the [i]Men In Black[/i] franchise with added gore. There you have a classic example of complete loss of plot – it’s aliens and it’s comedy so whatever we’ve just thought of can happen, even if it makes no sense. However, I’d be interested to know whether, in the opinion of Alex Kittle, the same director’s [i]Phantasm[/i] has the same flaws? It’s bizarre, but in my opinion it does kind of make sense, apart from the peculiar ending which seems to show the bad guy winning, and is totally ignored in the sequel. So I know Don Coscarelli is capable of holding a plot together, but I think this is the first time he’s had to work from a story into which he had no real input. So is this a less coherent film than [i]Phantasm;[/i]?
Otto: I haven’t seen PHANTASM yet so I can’t offer a comparison, sorry! I hope to see it soon. And yeah I didn’t mean to cause a stir by the “weird for the sake of being weird” comment, I just meant that sometimes the film gets caught up in its weirdness/arbitrariness and it doesn’t all hold together too well. Still an enjoyable movie, though!
Alex, I think you might like Phantasm. Don Coscarelli was ridiculously young when he made it (though I think he’d made at least one absolutely zero-budget feature already), but it’s interesting that he was already playing with the idea of putting unconventional “heroes” outside the normal handsome teen bracket in his films – one genuinely heroic character is a bald and distinctly unglamorous ice cream salesman who just wants to compose pleasantly bland soft rock, not fight monsters from a parallel universe.
The villain is also interesting, since he’s not a zombie or a vampire, but something completely and utterly alien, which makes a change. And you can’t not appreciate that flying sphere – perhaps the most effectively nasty sci-fi robot ever created (and that includes the Terminator), yet also one of the cheapest. It does get incoherent in places, but I thought he’d grown out of that.
I hope I didn’t spoil the ending for you, but since there seem to be two of them, one of which apparently didn’t happen, otherwise there couldn’t have been 3 sequels, I don’t really know whether the bad guy won, despite having seen the film. Just assume that the last few minutes are a dream-sequence and the dead guys got better.
piola !!!!!! piola 🙂
I have not seen the movie yet so I’m going to have to take your word on that.