Thursday, January 31, 2013

John Dies at the End—but Don’t Let that Get You Down

It starts with a wickedly macabre riddle.  Where it finishes is not so clear.  One would assume the title offers an obvious clue, but not necessarily.  Those who require a rigorously logical approach to the space-time continuum might be out to sea, but genre fans looking for a wild trip will find in Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Based on the novel by Jason Pargin published under the pen-name David Wong, JDATE (as it is cheekily abbreviated) follows the story character David Wong has to tell reporter Arnie Blondestone, in a series of rapid-fire flashbacks.  He really does not look like a Wong, but looks are frequently deceiving in this reality.

“Wong” and his partner John are amateur exorcists approaching professional status.  Two years ago, they were exposed to a drug known as Soy Sauce.  This stuff really opens up the doors of perception.  Now they can see beings from other dimensions and tell you what you dreamed last night.  Unfortunately, just as Wong adjusts to the sauce, he learns his best friend has died.  Shortly thereafter, John starts calling him, first to apologize for all the drama and then to guide him through a series of predicaments.  Eventually, they reunite to confront an imminent threat from another universe, on what appears to be the Eyes Wide Shut world, with the help of their powerful ally, Dr. Albert Marconi, who masquerades as a television psychic.  Or something like that.  Then it becomes a bit complicated.

What Bill & Ted were to stoner science fiction, JDATE is to psychotropic genre fare. 
Like the original source novel, the film is episodic in structure, madly hop-scotching back and forth across time and planes of existence.  The audience just has to live in the moment of each segment, which are almost always outrageously clever.  Frankly, viewers really do not care if the lads save the universe.  They will just want to see what comes next.

As Wong and John, Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are likable lugs, who treat the bedlam with admirable seriousness, never winking at the camera.  However, it is the supporting characters that really enrich JDATE.  Executive producer Paul Giamatti is kind of awesome as Blondestone—a rather more complex role than it first appears.  Likewise, Clancy Brown delivers pure genre gold as Dr. Marconi.  There’s also a dog, Bark Lee, as himself, who deserves consideration for next year’s Golden Collar Award, if they can keep it going that long.  There is even a brief appearance from Angus Scrimm, the cult favorite from Coscarelli’s Phantasm.

JDATE’s energy and inventiveness are impressive.  As eccentric as things get, the film never feels forced or self-consciously hip.  That is the real trick.  As a result, the rough edges, apparently the result of budgetary limitations, can easily be forgiven.  In fact, they become part of the charm.  Highly recommended for fans of over-the-top sci-fi-horror hybrids, John Dies at the End opens tomorrow (2/1) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine, with Coscarelli attending the Friday and Saturday night screenings.