Monday, February 4, 2013

"John Dies at the End" a weirdly fun ride...for a while

John Dies at the End (2013) 
99 min., rated R.

How do you solve a problem like Don Coscarelli? Well, you can either accept the loopy internal logic and messy, incoherent rules of "John Dies at the End," which might or might not have the biggest spoiler in its title, or rack your brain trying to make sense of what the filmmaker had in mind. Good luck with that, but you're better off going with the first option. Another oddball brainchild from cult writer-director Coscarelli of "Phantasm" fame, as well as being the creator of his nutty, genre-bending 2003 horror-comic paragon "Bubba Ho-Tep," this madcap little lark has midnight movie written all over it and aspires to be an all-time cult classic. For a while, it's a total blast, but by the time it has to start closing up shop, the wind goes out of the sails.

A couple of slacker dudes, David Wong (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), become psychic spiritual exorcists when they get their hands on "soy sauce"—a black, spiky drug in a syringe (or in the form of coffee beans that turn into flies) that heightens your senses and totally changes your perception of reality. Told through flashback when David sits down with skeptical reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) at a Chinese restaurant, the absurdly convoluted, nearly indescribable plot concerns Bill and Ted, er, David and John of their excellent existential adventure in saving the universe. Will multiple viewings clear it up for anyone?

The anything-goes plot is always zigging and zagging and spiraling out of control as if the filmmakers went paint-balling with their ideas to the screen. But by being based on Jason Pargin's web serial-turned-novel (under the pseudonym of protagonist David Wong) and wittily written by Coscarelli, "John Dies at the End" is so brazenly gonzo and drug-induced that no one could possibly see Pargin's source material being translated any better. At a deliriously fast pace, it brings to the unpredictable proceedings a Jamaican psychic, a dog named Bark Lee, gooey slugs this side of "Men in Black," and so much more that it will make your eyes explode, which coincidentally happens to a character. All bets are off. Then once it takes a trip to the "Mall of Death" that leads to an alternate dimension, the film gets bogged down in too much silly exposition and we want to go back home.

Before that, Coscarelli goes all out, fusing together smart-alecky humor, tongue-in-cheek gore, and some fantastic B-movie effects. It's the kind of movie where a door knob morphs into a rubbery penis. Then there's a monster made of every possible frozen meat you can think of. Like the flying silver balls that would dart into people's heads in "Phantasm," there is a flying mustache, and why not? And where else will you find bratwurst being used as a cell phone? 

Williamson and Mayes are affably funny, bouncing off one another quite well. The latter, in particular, can deliver a laugh with merely a bewildered face. Giamatti (who also executive produced) mostly has a listening role and unfortunately doesn't get the chance to be loony, but Clancy Brown, as an infomercial mentalist, and Glynn Turman, as a pyro detective, are clearly on board with the free-wheeling material. Also, Angus Scrimm (the Tall Man from "Phantasm") shows up, and the rail-thin Doug Jones ("Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth") finally appears out of creature prosthetics.

"John Dies at the End" is fun and likably weird-for-weird's sake but merely a shaggy-dog story that doesn't amount to much more than a bong hit. It will probably pop out of your head once the "soy sauce" wears off, but who knows, it might draw a following for Coscarelli diehards. Normal is overrated anyway.

Grade: C +

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