Don Coscarelli had a loyal fan-base for life when he made the Phantasm movies. Far from perfect, especially due to Coscarelli painting himself into a corner at the end of each instalment just to work his way out of it with each sequel, they hold up well as top-notch horror entertainment, full of inventiveness and sheer fun. Then came Bubba Ho-Tep, a film that built such a fervent cult following that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Coscarelli had been sending out batches of Kool-Aid. I know that I’m not the only person impatiently awaiting the proposed Bubba Nosferatu follow-up. Well, that wait has got a little easier, thanks to the release of John Dies At The End – a film based on the book by Jason Pargin (writing as David Wong).
How best to describe the plot of John Dies At The End? Well . . . . . . the story actually focuses on David Wong (Chase Williamson), the hero and narrator and best friend to John (Rob Mayes). David is telling his amazing story to Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) and most of the action takes place in the recent past with some scenes happening in the present. Still with me? Things really start to get weird when John encounters something known as Soy Sauce. It’s black, quite lively and when taken by the right person it opens up the entire universe. It allows people to see what was, what is and even what will be. It allows people to see things that they shouldn’t. What David and John see . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . needs to be dealt with.
I don’t want to give away any more of the plot here, or any more of the many wonderful tangents that the movie goes off on, but I don’t want to sell it short either. Think of Ghostbusters mixed with Donnie Darko mixed with . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey mixed with Limitless and you’re just a little bit closer. Throw in a scene with someone using a bratwurst as a phone and you’re even closer.
The two leads may not be very well-known to audiences, but they’re both great in their roles. Paul Giamatti IS well-known to most people and he is his usual, entertaining, self. Elsewhere, Clancy Brown is given a wonderful and atypical role as Marconi, a theatrical and famous psychic who also could be the real deal, and Glynn Turman is a detective who also sees a lot of strange things going on that he knows need to be dealt with, even if he doesn’t fully understand them. Doug Jones has a small, but memorable, role, Fabianne Therese is fine as Amy, a young woman with a prosthetic hand who may have an important role to play, and Jonny Weston is entertainingly annoying as a young lad who likes to act “a bit gangsta”. Nope, I can’t fault the cast at all. Fans will also be pleased to see Angus Scrimm in a brief cameo role.
Sadly, I haven’t read the book that the movie is based on, but I can tell you that the script deftly blends numerous wild ideas without making any of it look like hard work, the dialogue is sharp and witty and all of the characters develop steadily, despite the fact that this is a densely plotted piece that barely has time to pause from start to finish. The inventiveness and wit were, I assume, in the book itself, but Coscarelli deserves a lot of praise for putting plenty into the movie and doing it all in a way that doesn’t leave audience members scratching their hands and wondering when they got left behind (well, okay, a few people might still end up doing that, but this movie just won’t be aimed at them anyway).
Basically, Coscarelli has done it again. He’s created a superb, potentially cult, movie that already has a core, loyal fan-base (and that will only grow and grow) and he’s done it without the whole thing feeling deliberately engineered that way because he doesn’t make great, cult movies. He makes great movies, period. Maybe one day everyone will realise that, but for now, he will always have many fans who are thankful for his unique vision and talent. Fans like me and, I hope, some of the people who read this review.
John Dies At The End is showing as part of the Glasgow Film Festival on Friday 15th Feb and Saturday 16th Feb.
DIRECTOR: DON COSCARELLI
WRITER: DON COSCARELLI, BASED ON THE BOOK BY JASON PARGIN
STARS: CHASE WILLIAMSON, ROB MAYES, PAUL GIAMATTI, CLANCY BROWN, GLYNN TURMAN, DOUG JONES, FABIANNE THERESE, JONNY WESTON, JIMMY WONG, ANGUS SCRIMM
RUNTIME: 99 MINS APPROX