Judge Patrick Bromley lives to review another day.
Just so you know…they're sorry for anything that's about to happen.
Cult filmmaker Don Coscarelli returns with the most spoilerifically-titled movie since Kill Bill.
Facts of the Case
The drug is called Soy Sauce. It's been taken by Dave (Chase Williamson, Sparks) and his best friend John (Rob Mayes, The American Mall), and it makes things…weird. As the movie opens, Dave is telling his story to Arnie (Paul Giamatti, Sideways), a journalist. He tells about how he and John took Soy Sauce and began hallucinating, communicating with the dead and seeing monsters; they started a business of sorts, getting rid of the supernatural things that only they can see. Things get complicated when people start dying, monsters from other dimensions start showing up, a cop (Glynn Turman, Super 8) begins chasing Dave down…and John…well, you know.
Don Coscarelli makes eccentric movies. It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work that his latest effort, the 2012 horror comedy John Dies at the End, plays like the bastard child of Ghostbusters and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What more do we expect from the guy who made a name for himself with the Phantasm series?
John Dies at the End, a funny, trippy, gory horror comedy, is based on a novel of the same name by David Wong (also the name of the main character). There's plenty of stuff in the movie that would work pretty easily on the page but which has difficulty translating to the screen; credit to writer/director Coscarelli for adapting the material in a way that, while messy, still feels ambitiously cinematic. This is clearly a movie that could have been helped by a bigger budget, as it is obvious that the ambitions of the story and of Coscarelli are of a scope beyond the means of the movie. When it uses camera trickery or impressive practical foam latex, John Dies at the End is a fantastic throwback to the monster movies of the 1980s. Because the narrative is so otherworldly, however, there is a huge reliance on CGI, including an underwhelming climax that's all but ruined by digital effects and green screen. Luckily, the crazy energy and absurd humor of the film carry it through even the rough patches, adding up to a movie that's uneven but a whole lot of fun.
One of the movie's weaknesses, unfortunately, is Chase Williamson's performance in the lead. It's not that he's bad—he's funny in a low-key way—but he's constantly being shown up by the actors in the character parts, from Paul Giamatti to Clancy Brown to Doug Jones to the great Glynn Turman. Williamson mostly just acts bewildered most of the time, which actually makes him a pretty good audience surrogate. Now that I think about it, Williamson is pretty right on in his approach to the role; while watching the movie, his work felt small and unsure in comparison to the more seasoned actors, but in retrospect it's perfectly effective. I can't remember another instance where I literally changed my mind about something in the middle of composing a review. I considered just deleting the paragraph and rewriting it, but a) that wouldn't be an honest account of my reaction and b) switching gears mid-sentence is very much in keeping with the spirit of the movie.
John Dies at the End comes to Blu-ray from Magnolia Entertainment in a very satisfying package. First things first: the movie gets a solid 1.78:1/1080p HD transfer that's sure to satisfy fans. This is a movie that was shot on digital and looks it, so while I found myself missing the quality of film more than once (is it possible that an image be too clean?), it's hard to argue with the results: excellent color reproduction, incredible details, perfectly executed black levels. It's a great transfer, but it sure doesn't look like film. Audiophiles should be happy with the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD track that, given the hallucinatory nature of the film, is a great deal of fun; while the dialogue is presented clearly in the front channels, the rear speakers are often put to good use with ambient noise and surround effects.
Magnolia has compiled a decent selection of bonus features for those looking to dig deeper into the movie. Director Coscarelli, stars Rob Mayes and Chase Williamson and producer Brad Baruh all recorded a commentary track together that's very enjoyable, covering various aspects of the production and having a good time. Truth be told, I would have been happy with a solo Coscarelli track (or even him and his producer) because he's the kind of filmmaker I just enjoy listening to, but the actors bring a sense of fun and the track never gets bogged down by too much overlapping conversation. A collection of deleted scenes are all entertaining, but do nothing to further one's understanding of the movie. Then there are a bunch of featurettes: an interview with co-star Paul Giamatti (where he admits that the movie he originally signed on for was Bubba Nosferatu), a piece on the special effects, a 10-minute making-of piece, a short preview for author David Wong's follow-up book and footage from the actors' original auditions. Also included is the movie's original theatrical trailer.
Though not a complete success, there's enough spark and personality in John Dies at the End to make it a worthy entry into Coscarelli's filmography. It's the kind of movie that's going to alienate almost anyone but the people for whom it's made, who are sure to embrace it and reference it for years to come. Coscarelli's movies—which are far too few and sporadic—are all pretty much cult movies from the get-go. John Dies at the End is sure to be the cultiest of cult movies.
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