Here is the review of the movie “John Dies at the End,” which I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:
In a movie landscape comprising everything from “Lincoln” to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” it’s not unusual to see … well, the unusual. And that’s certainly one word to explain a movie titled “John Dies at the End.”
I can think of other words, too. Cute. Clever. Innovative. Mildy. Amusing.
Cute applies both to the plot and the tone of “John Dies at the End.” Writer-director Don Coscarelli, the veteran schlock-meister who gave us the “Phantasm” horror-flick franchise, has adapted a novel by Jason Pargin (writing under the pseudonym David Wong). The story, which is for the most part unintelligible, begins with our 20-something protagonist, Dave Wong – played by the distinctly non-Asian actor Chase Williamson – meeting with a journalist (played by Paul Giamatti, who did double duty as one of the film’s executive producers).
Dave, it turns out, has a story to tell, which involves a hallucinogenic-type drug he dubs “soy sauce,” a fortune-telling Jamaican, alternate universes, deadly spiders, a slug-like super-computer and nothing less than the potential end of life on Earth. In the midst of this, Dave and his buddy John – of the film’s title, played by Rob Mayes – find themselves the last hope of humankind – which would seem to be the fantasy of every member of the Harry Potter Generation.
That plot line almost by necessity defines the comic-horror tone of “John Dies at the End,” which owes a lot to another of Coscarelli’s creations, the 2002 movie “Bubba Ho-tep” – which features the improbable tale of an aging Elvis Presley and a black man claiming to be John F. Kennedy battling a murderous mummy with world domination on its mind. As I say, cute.
But also clever. Because the one thing that Coscarelli has going for him is a sense of humor. While so many mainstream stabs at comic horror end up sacrificing jokes for CGI action, or worse just simply offering jokes so flat they can’t compete with the liberal bathings of guts and gore, at least Coscarelli keeps his often impenetrable plot moving fast enough so that if one scene doesn’t prompt laughs the next one – or the NEXT one – no doubt will.
What’s innovative about all this involves how much Coscarelli, a veteran of low-budget filmmaking, manages to achieve while spending pretty much nothing. As with “Bubba Ho-tep” – the production budget of which may have been about 1 percent of was spent on, say, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” – nothing about “John Dies at the End” will make you think of the magic crafted at Skywalker Ranch. That’s hardly a problem, though, because when a doorknob suddenly turns into a penis, and a character pulls back while crying out, “This door cannot be opened,” believe me, you’re not likely to be thinking, “Hmmm, that doesn’t look like a REAL penis.”
And so the result of all this? As I said: Mildy. Amusing. Though most of the no-name actors, even the one playing the obligatory girlfriend, are relatively inexperienced, they mange to hit their spots – and Williamson, whose expressions range from deer-in-the-headlights to are-you-looking-at-me? – is something more: an affable would-be hero.
I already have the perfect sequel title: “John Dies at the End – Again.”