My job as a film critic is to provide my opinion with context, not to attempt prognostication. But walking out of John Dies At The End I was seized with an enormous certainty that the film I just watched will become an enormous, long-lived cult film.
And I mean a cult film in the truest sense of the term. John Dies At The End will be a movie that you use to gauge new friends. Do they like JDATE (the romantic sounding acronym of the title)? If not, they may not be your kind of person. It's a movie that will inspire catchphrases and references. It's a movie that will inspire, in the select few, a real devotion.
How to describe what John Dies At The End is? Here's what comes to mind: imagine if Golden Period John Carpenter directed a Grant Morrisson script. Filled with humor, kinetic action, heady scifi and philosophical mumbo jumbo, cool monsters and strong, cool characters, John Dies At The End is a movie whose family tree includes Big Trouble In Little China and Buckaroo Banzai.
Director Don Coscarelli adapted the cult novel by David Wong (a psuedonym for Jason Pargin); I don't know what the novel is like, but if the hallucinogenic, comedic and splattery tone of the movie is true to the novel I want to read the book ASAP. This is a movie unafraid to have a big mythology, a movie that assumes you'll be able to follow along as it talks about Hell, alternate dimensions, ancient evils and viral transdimensional bug outbreaks. It's a geek movie of the highest caliber.
There are some problems; the cut shown at Sundance has an incredible first half (and possibly one of the best opening sequences ever, a sequence that encapsulates the movie's practical gore FX, its sense of humor, its mythology and its stoner philosophical tendencies) that gives way to a more sluggish, seemingly unfinished second half. The structure is weird. We're introduced to the paranormal aspects of the world three different times; first in a sequence that finds David Wong (a white guy who changed his name to be harder to find) and his best friend John battling a demonic entity made of meat products, then in a scene where David sits down with a reporter (Paul Giamatti) to tell his story and then a THIRD TIME as we flash back to when David and John first became aware of the serious strangeness of the world.
The strangeness includes a drug called Soy Sauce, a black narcotic that really opens the doors of perception, allowing the user to remember the future, slip through time and access alternate dimensions. The rules of Soy Sauce are sort of vague, but that's part of the film's druggy charm. The whole movie feels like a trip, so it's fitting that the central drug should have laxly lysergic continuity.
Soy Sauce allows John and David to understand that a terrible cross-dimensional invasion is about to happen; imagine William S. Burroughs writing an episode of Supernatural and you might have an idea where the film goes. It's a shaggy movie, one given to detours and tangents, but every bit of it is so much fun that only the most unimaginative moviegoer could complain.
John Dies At The End stars two surprisingly strong new actors: Chase Williamson is David and Rob Mayes is John. Both have sort of pretty boy good looks that wouldn't be out of place on the CW (Supernatural again!), but they're also strong and comedically gifted actors. More than that they have great chemistry, and their friendship - which is central to the story - is completely believable.
The film's weirdest performance comes from Clancy Brown as Dr. Marconi, a famous psychic and spiritualist whose big Vegas shows hide the fact that he's a legitimate psychic and spiritualist and demon hunter. Brown has a lot of fun in the role, even if the character is sort of awkwardly placed into the film.
Coscarelli keeps the film's energy high, and he shoots the film with a sly style that is a lot of fun to watch. The tone of the film is simply perfect, a gory blast of imaginative fun. And much of that gore is practical, which makes me like the film - and its strange, slimy creatures - all the more.
In a lot of ways John Dies At The End feels like a pilot, and I do want to see more adventures. These are great characters, and they're living in a terrifically psychotropic world. I grew up wanting more stories about Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Kavaliers and more craziness from Jack Burton. I think there's a generation of cool movie nerds who are going to grow up wanting more weirdness from John and David. And I really, really hope they get it.