|The young stars of "John Dies at the End" go around, through, and over the looking glass.|
So goofy and bizarre you can't help loving it. This review originally appeared in the February issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission.
And, yeah, consider this review the end of my Oscar bitching, which really is a tradition onto itself.
For the past month, the buzz surrounding Oscar nominations has turned movies into a big plate of vegetables that we have to eat. This year’s big nominees—Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty—all have purpose: the grandeur of American history, love (or a dance contest) conquers all, current events come alive. It almost makes me feel guilty for enjoying The Avengers or 21 Jump Street as much as I did.
This solemn façade never holds for too long. Ironically, the first two months of the year are also when studios display their damaged goods in the hopes that someone might take them. OK, we got Marlon Wayans! He’s stale, but your kid might like him! Yo, who wants Gangster Squad! Gosling and Stone aren’t quite ripe for a mob movie, but they’ll blossom! As a movie fan, every year I go through the same routine: the giddy anticipation of November and December gives way to the grim desperation of January and February.
Occasionally, one of these new misfit toys will do more than provide relief from the suffocating fumes of prestige or remind us that Cedric the Entertainer is still alive. Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End, opening in Philadelphia this month after playing On Demand, possesses an intoxicating, raggedy energy. You’re not sure where Coscarelli is taking you, but we don’t mind. The ride is the movie.
John Dies at the End, based on the book by David Wong, has a center. A young man named David (Chase Williamson) talks to a newspaper reporter (Paul Giamatti) about his abilities to cross time and dimensions, thanks to being injected with a black substance called “Soy Sauce.” David and his similarly affected buddy John (Rob Mayes) battle all sorts of paranormal problems--like demons made out of meat, for example. They have made powerful enemies. That happens when you can slow down time and hear other people’s thoughts, I guess.
Coscarelli, probably best known for Phantasm (as well as its three sequels) and Bubba Ho-Tep, has made a career out of going beyond campy first impressions. Despite its content—horror at a funeral home; Elvis Presley and JFK battling a mummy—those two movies possessed a goofy self-awareness to go with their sensitivity. Coscarelli brings that same fun to John Dies at the End. Unlike M. Night Shaymalan or the Wachowski siblings, he can express intellectual curiosity without the pretension. David and John’s issues—which include attacking moustaches, giant insects, and (why not?) world destruction—aren’t treated solely as an excuse to comment on the constraints of time or to offer insight into expanding our horizons. For the two friends, it’s an inconvenience. OK, so distressed citizens from the future consider them a savior. They’ll get right back to them after shooting hoops.
That Giamatti, perhaps America’s finest actor, is involved here isn’t accidental. Smart actors—and rabid movie fans—already know that it doesn’t matter if a movie is a blockbuster or a character study or a romantic comedy. Good movies are good movies and serious movies aren’t necessarily good movies. The Academy Awards has turned forgetting those facts into a yearly tradition, which is how Les Misérables and Life of Pi become the year’s best. Movies like John Dies at the End exist to make sure we don’t fall into that trap. [R]