Greetings from the Edge!
On this edition of the Edge, we’ll be taking a look at John Dies at the End from Don Coscarelli, writer/director of the Phantasm series, Beast Master, and Bubba Ho-Tep ( and the upcoming Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires ). We are in the presence of royalty here, my fiendish friends. Staring Chase Williamson as Dave, our main protagonist and narrator, Rob Mayes as John, Dave’s partner and unflappable friend, Paul Giamatti as Arnie Blondestone, a skeptical reporter, and Clancy Brown as Dr. Albert Marconi, psychic mystic and all around almost as awesome as Clancy Brown himself.
John Dies at the End begins with a new take on an old riddle: if you replace an axe’s handle and then later its blade, is it still the same axe? Also known as the Grandfather’s Axe Paradox. Of course in the version posited in John Dies at the End, it also involves a neo-nazi zombie, an extra-dimensional parasite, and a verrrrry suspicious hardware store clerk.
After our brief introduction ( which does an excellent job of setting the tone I must say, ) we open on a dimly lit Chinese restaurant and the lines, “My name is David Wong, I once saw a man’s kidney grow tentacles, tear itself out a ragged hole in his back and go slapping across my kitchen floor. But that’s another story.” Choo-choo, kiddies, the train to normality has left the station and we’ve been stranded on the platform with all the weirdos and monsters, and just in case you were hoping, no it’s not all a bad trip or fevered nightmare.
Can Dave and his friend John uncover the truth behind the “Soy Sauce,” a strange drug that, once encountered, leaves an indelible mark on the mind and perhaps the soul? Can they survive the unfathomable chaos storming around them and just maybe save the world from a threat so alien only a cold war Soviet hallucinogen of mass destruction can stop it, or will they screw it up and doom us all? Let’s see!
Considering his pedigree in the Phantasm series, I would expect nothing less than fun, effective SFX from Don Coscarelli, and John Dies at the End is a perfect example of his style: plenty of practical effects and knowing how to stretch a special effects budget in all the right places without looking or feeling cheap, and especially not trying to smear everything with bargain basement CGI and hoping for the best. Don Coscarelli also loves to dip into the body horror pool and John Dies at the End takes a few laps, I can assure you.
I think one of my favorite effects was the animated segment when Dave and John are being introduced to the people of Korrok. Don Coscarelli managed to turn something horrifically disturbing into a slightly more light-hearted affair while still getting across all the relevant implications… and avoiding an X rating, so that’s a bonus!
I feel like I also have to mention one of my favorite weapons in John Dies at the End: “The Bible Belter,” a baseball bat with the Old Testament laminated or lacquered onto it and spikes driven through the head. I have no idea if that makes it any more effective as a weapon against the supernatural, but it’s intimidating as hell!
Oh, and in case you didn’t spot it, the uniforms of the “Human Liberation Army” are actually recycled Thermian costumes from Galaxy Quest. Knowing is half the battle!
John Dies at the End has Don Coscarelli’s fingerprints all over it. While the original novel was written by David Wong ( Jason Pargin ), it has all the earmarks of Coscarelli’s favorite “trippy, extra-dimensional threat faced down by woefully ill prepared schmucks” theme to it.
John Dies at the End is as much a spiritual successor to films like Buckaroo Banzai and Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn as it is to Coscarelli’s own Phantasm series. Fun, irreverent, and leaving you guessing at the true nature of the film’s reality at every turn, John Dies at the End is a real rarity in today’s series and remake glutted market, an original.
I don’t think you have to guess after the tone of the rest of my review what my recommendation will be. John Dies at the End is fun, funny, disturbing, occasionally revolting, and intermittently offensive, so yeah, highly recommended!
However, if you or your friends want just a straightforward horror or comedy, John Dies at the End is not what you’re looking for. Is John Dies at the End a horror/comedy or a comedy/horror? I’d say it’s more comedy/horror, but I’m both jaded and as twisted as a corkscrew, so your mileage may vary.
I would also recommend that if you enjoy John Dies at the End, check out Buckaroo Banzai ( 1984 ) and Bubba Ho-Tep ( 2002 ), and if your tastes allow something more on the horror side of the street, definitely seek out Coscarelli’s own Phantasm series. I personally find the earlier films in the series to be the best, but considering that’s where you should start anyway, you’re in luck!
Nerdy Speculation Corner: Warning, may contain both spoilers and dangerous amounts of geekery!
Is it just me or is Korrok kinda… rapey. Giant tentacle beast tropes notwithstanding, Korrok’s ( Hey, I don’t know how that hellbeast self identifies! ) first words are “Your weiner is even smaller in person,” and just gets more sexual from there. I mean, Korrok is the product of beastiology ( nope, not touching that one ) and trust me, kids, biological A.I. is a no-no. At least with Cthulhu, you’re not afraid he’s going to molest you before he blasts the sanity from your mind and devours your soul. So, advantage Cthulhu, in my book!
Also, I have to say I love Bark Lee’s tombstone: “Bark Lee, R.I.P., Mankind’s Best Friend.” Yep, at least the true hero of the story got a little posthumous credit.
Oh, and I just had to add a picture of the Bible Belter in all its glory.
Join me next week when we’ll be taking an anniversary look at Cloverfield. Will my love of kaiju cinema overcome my innate loathing and motion sickness induced by shaky cam found footage movies, or will I be cursed into a wretched ball of nauseous suffering… FOR YOUUUUUU!!!