The story behind John Dies at the End is as bizarre as the film itself; an online story published under the pseudonym of the lead character David Wong who himself uses a pseudonym which became a book which became a film written, produced, directed and edited by Don Coscarelli, best known for the Phantasm films and more recently Bubba Ho-Tep, and currently seeking a well deserved UK distribution following its screening at the Glasgow Film Festival.
In a Chinese restaurant, David has arranged to meet a reporter to tell him the story of the soy sauce which isn’t soy sauce peddled by a fake Jamaican magician who isn’t called Robert Marley, beginning by demonstrating the mental powers gifted him by the sauce then recounting the previous night when he got the call from his friend John saying he had to go around because his friend Shelley was being harassed by her dead boyfriend. Is this the first sign of the zombie apocalypse or something much deeper? Certainly, it is much more convoluted.
The opening scenes is a stream of consciousness monologue that channels the mood of chopping zombie heads off in a brightly lit snowscape, but the film takes for granted that it will be deemed cool, and here Coscarelli’s unobtrusive direction works against him. Unlike many filmmakers, he doesn’t leave fingerprints, letting the film do the talking and here it whispers when it wants to shout. While such restraint is admirable, when the material demands that it be outrageous and stylised, the presentation must rise to that or risk appearing bland.
As David Wong, a man with more weapons in his garage than Buffy Summers, Chase Williamson is amiable rather than engaging, and while his camaraderie with John Cheese is necessary to drive the plot, Rob Mayes’ portrayal tends towards annoying sidekick rather than rounded character, and in fact John becomes more interesting and likeable once he dies, much earlier in the film than the title suggests.
Clearly aiming for a tongue in cheek Supernatural vibe, the duo need to earn the cool points before they cash them in, yet the film expects the audience to accept their credentials on face value. Williamson’s underplaying of David takes the risk that his indifference will disengage the viewer from the narrative, victims of the zeitgeist of “meh” that pervades modern youth, though once the story begins in earnest he is easier to warm to and carries his first feature lead with assurance.
Executive producer Paul Giamatti is effortlessly excellent as journalist Arnie Blondestone and Doug Jones makes a brief expositional appearance in a rare prosthetic free role, though Clancy Brown is wasted as Doctor Marconi, an undemanding extended cameo of the kind that has typified his career, requiring a fraction of the ability he showcased in Carnivàle. Brian Tyler’s soundtrack suits the changing moods of the film, channelling Lynch and Carpenter amongst others.
Making the best use of the budget, the film favours practical effects enhanced by occasional digital work, instead focusing on the characters and their environment, and deserves praise for being original and unpredictable, avoiding the clichés that plague modern studio horror. There are great moments, such as the phone calls from the recently deceased John, but too often it fails to follow through, never becoming either as dark or as funny as it should be, Coscarelli only allowing the film to truly take flight when fuelled by the sauce in fantastical interludes of visual invention and craziness.