What if you took a drug that let you slip throughout time, space, and reality? What if these effects lasted only hours? What if the side effect of this drug is seeing otherworldly monstrosities wandering around the waking world? What if you were stuck seeing these things for the rest of your life? While “John Dies at the End” fails at times to do these ideas justice, it must be applauded for the attempt.
“John” stars newcomer Chase Williamson as protagonist David Wong, a somewhat clever, but listless, twenty-something who fights demons during his downtime. Williamson, and the character he plays, are certainly a highlight of the movie. He brings dry wit and humorous narration to a world that would be painfully grim without it.
Williams’ co-star Rob Mayes plays the titular John Cheese, a man reminiscent in many ways of a labrador; not especially bright, but loyal and relentlessly cheerful.
Rounding out the cast is Paul Giamatti who plays the narrative-framing device Arnie Blondestone. Arnie is a reporter that covers the weird and unexplainable who has agreed to sit down with David to hear his story out. Giamatti is a lovable ham as always. The most enjoyable and memorable scenes of the movie come from Arnie and David sitting in a run-down Chinese restaurant while talking about odd things.
“John” sees the return of famed cult director Don Coscarelli to filmmaking after ten years. Coscarelli is responsible for the bizarre and mind-bending “Phantasm” and the touching, dry “Bubba Ho-Tep,” so he seems a rather obvious choice for a movie filled with surreal horrifying moments and dry wit.
However, his lack of practice shows, especially with regard to quality. While “Bubba Ho-Tep” concealed its low budget with a simple script and limited locations, “John” is far wider-reaching in scope. A variety of sets, extensive digital effects, extras, and props all add up.
With a limited budget and so many demands, the movie’s effects fall flat at times. While some sequences are spectacular (an early scene wherein a demon possesses a fridge filled with meat manages to be simultaneously absurd and disturbing), many more fall flat. Some scenes with heavy use of digital effects and green screen come off looking like they belong in a student film rather than a feature, albeit an indie feature. Far too often “John” stumbles by trying to do too much with too little.
“John Dies at the End” is based on a novel with the same title. The novel’s ideas and imagery in the film caused me to seek this particular book out. It is marvelous. Smart and funny writing meshes well with a grim and terrifying story to produce an instant classic. On the page, ideas that are merely played with in the movie are given much more room to breathe, and boy do they shine. The characters feel far more real and solid, and the challenges they face are far more intricate and interesting than what winds up on the screen. It’s unclear whether this is a testament to the quality of the writing, Coscarelli’s failure as a director, or simply the limits of the medium and budget.
While “John Dies at the End” probably deserves a better rating than it got, as an indie flick you could do far, far worse. There’s still enough charm and originality in the movie to keep you fascinated, at least up until the third act, where it falls apart a bit. Still, “John” is more than enough to keep fans of Lovecraftian imagery and gallows humor satisfied.