John Dies at the End is the kind of oddball movie that I hope to find each and every time I dig deep into the Netflix Basement. It features professional character actors Clancy Brown, Doug Jones, and Angus Scrimm, and is directed with talent and verve by Don Coscarelli, who made one of my favorite movies, Bubba Ho-Tep. If you are a fan of cult horror and sci-fi films, then these names are familiar to you and you will enjoy this movie. For everyone else, let’s check this son of a gun out, shall we?
John Dies at the End (2012)
We open with the framing story of, not the titular John, but his buddy Dave, meeting with reporter Paul Giamatti wearing a too-tight buttoned shirt in a dimly lit Chinese restaurant. Oh, did I mention Paul Giamatti is in this movie, too? It’s quite a collection of acting talent.
Dave tells the skeptical Giamatti about all of his increasingly strange adventures with his buddy John. They are novice paranormal investigators who are trying to make sense of a bizarre world domination plot they become ensnared in. Now, I’m going to warn you ahead of time that this movie doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Or at least I couldn’t figure out what was happening or why. Don Coscarelli, who wrote and directed all of the Phantasm movies, specializes in these waking nightmare stories where dream logic is the reality and invisible spider-monsters, ghost people, and mustaches that rip off your face and flutter away are the norm.
There is a bizarre “plot” about how John and Dave both get injected with an icky, black, bio-organic drug called Soy Sauce that gives them the ability to see things that aren’t there. Or are they going crazy and the entire world is trying to kill them? That is a very real possibility, too. The hijinks begin when they meet a seemingly normal girl who is seeing dead people, and they make the mistake of going into the basement. Never go into the basement. So they quickly discover the girl is a ghost, who turns into a pile of snakes. Then, in my favorite joke, John runs up the basement stairs to escape the snakes only to find the door handle has turned into a giant ghostly cock and balls. “I’m not touching that,” he says. Then they are attacked by a meat monster.
As you can see, the movie is pitched at a hyperkinetic level; horrible things and jokes fly fast and furious. At points, it seems like it’s paying homage to the freakout drug movies like Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but you know, with meat monsters. I don’t think it ever reaches the heights that those movies do. But there is bizarre stuff you haven’t seen before. And I didn’t mention how and when the character actors show up because that is part of the joy of watching this movie.
My only gripe is that John and Dave are too glib and jaded to ever be affected by the strange goings-on. They are too blasé about the paranormal activities and conspiracies, and they have one-liners for everything. It’s like they’re both Ash from The Evil Dead but their jokes aren’t as good. This really hurts in the scenes when either John or Dave are going crazy on Soy Sauce and the other needs to be responding to his friend that is exhibiting bizarre behavior at that moment. A good comparison is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where either Benicio Del Toro or Johnny Depp are high and psychotic at different points in the movie, and both of them are scary and dangerous. In John Dies at the End, actual scary stuff is happening and the leads are too cool to react to any of it. It really takes away from an otherwise terrific movie.
BOTTOM LINE: Ultimately, I was hoping it would be a little funnier, and a little scarier. And that Paul Giamatti got to do a bit more. His scenes looked like they were filmed over one or two evenings in the Chinese restaurant, so he’s never part of the Soy Sauce conspiracy plot, which is a shame. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see Giamatti going on a bizarro paranormal adventure, okay Lady in the Lake and Fred Claus not included? Ultimately, this is one of the most original movies I’ve seen on Netflix and it’s guaranteed to expand your mind, at least a little. You should probably check it out.