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April 21, 2013

John Dies at the End

by Franz Patrick


John Dies at the End (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

David Wong (Chase Williamson), not Chinese despite his last name, is in a Chinese restaurant and confesses to us that he is under the influence of a drug called the Soy Sauce which enables him to count the number of grains of rice on a plate held by waitress passing by. Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a reporter, arrives and he is told that David wants to get the truth out about the world that we think we know. Initially, Arnie scoffs at himself for being foolish enough to have driven so many miles just to meet the slacker in front of him, but after David tells Arnie the amount, types, and years of the coins in his pocket, the curious reporter is more willing to entertain the idea.

Although it may sound like a most hyperbolic claim, “John Dies at the End,” based on the screenplay and directed by Don Coscarelli, summons the wild and imaginative natures of John Carpenter’s “They Live” and David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch.” Drain the former of its social commentary about consumerism and the latter of its deep philosophical questions about the essence of reality, it becomes more apparent that this film is their hybrid, deformed baby that leaves enough room for silly, fast-talking dialogue, questions that may or may not have defined answers, and genuinely creepy situations like a character having a conversation with a friend, suddenly getting a call, and the voice on the other line happening to be that same person less than two feet away.

To critique the picture for being so random that it feels more like a bunch of sketches thrown together holds some weight. But I think it is meant to be that way. A theme that courses through the veins and arteries of the scenes is the effects–and side effects–of the black drug that characters willingly–and unwillingly–take. In a lot of movies that aim to have fun with hallucinogens, it feels too literal: bright lights, someone who is high reaching for or running away from something that is not there, the works. In here, there is a story and it is driven by ideas. The drug is used as a trampoline for the characters to explore multiple universes, times, and consciousness.

It helps that the actors who play Dave and John (Rob Mayes), the best friend, are charming. They embody a certain wide-eyed, childlike quality that is infectious. So when they are thrusted into truly bizarre situations and they are in utter amazement or disbelief of what is happening, they are relatable on some level. We are as surprised or disgusted or worried as they are. Also, even though the duo have different personalities, they share enough similarities to have a convincing friendship. I wished that one or both had been in danger more often so the strength of their bond can be felt more strongly. But that would have been an avenue for a more typical work.

I loved the cheesy special and visual effects. From a mysterious young lady suddenly turning into a pile of snakes to a giant eye that is somehow able to communicate verbally, I was tickled by a lot of them. There were times when I laughed out loud–which (I am told) does not even happen with many comedies and horror-comedies that I end up liking. It is so unpredictable that I felt like a kid on a walkthrough haunted mansion with some sections fused with a deranged amusement park.

Based on the novel by David Wong, it is a great compliment when the film inspires us to read the original work. “John Dies at the End” dares to dream. With so many movies that are tired right from the very first scene, clearly designed to steal the audience’s money and time, this one offers an alternative. It begins with a riddle. Do we get an answer eventually? I say that we do… somewhat. It is a lot of things: confusing, fun, messy, contradictory, overloaded, odd, creepy, et al. But let’s not forget: it is also an original.

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