“Mr. Coscarelli really knows what he is doing here and allows his experience with low-budget inter-dimensional films not overwhelm the delicate narrative woven here. One would never guess that he hasn’t directed anything in a decade since Bubba Ho-Tep, as he does not appear to be rusty or out of touch at all. You might even consider this his grandest work since the original Phantasm. Some set pieces fall flat since the longwinded explanations of the interstellar phenomena render the mood a little too silly. The mood is always gleefully over the top without ever losing the tone through the dark corridors it forces the audience into.”
John Dies at the End, Movie Review
These days, some movies are really too clever for their own good. The Cabin in the Woods is probably the best example of this sudden meta genre resurgence. However, true midnight films are rarer than ever and are rip for a major comeback. Don Coscarelli’s first film in a decade, the adaptation of the almost overwhelmingly clever web serial-turned novel, John Dies at the End, by Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin (writing as David Wong), avoids getting trapped in a corner of its own brilliant devices while maintaining its bound to be limited-yet-undyingly loyal following appeal. Please be forewarned, the title is not necessarily a spoiler. In a film like this, you really cannot spoil almost anything due to the freewheeling mind trickery that Mr. Coscarelli masterfully controls. JDATE (yes, that is probably its twitter hashtag. At least it’s not #HATES) begins with an allegory that encompasses all of reality and zombie films in general. It basically tells the audience what they’re in for and warns them to stay far away if they cannot handle such ADD-inspired lunacy.
Despite the film and source material’s self-conscious intelligence, it is not (yet) a television show. Supernatural this is not. However, it has two charismatic lead actors in the form of Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes who might remind you of Sam and Dean a little too much at times. To prove this is still not television, we have Paul Giamatti playing Arnie Blondestone, a skeptical reporter with a hidden agenda who has to listen to Mr. Williamson’s JG Ballard-esque named Dave Wong character (and, no, this is NOT a true story, believe it or not!) recount some seriously ridiculous stories involving a drug called soy sauce (an obvious They Live! reference) that makes him psychic, talking animals, inter-dimensional travelogues, meat monsters, phantom limbs, religious leaders with magical powers, and a bratwurst that works at a communicator with the dead. This is just the first expository scene. And what is this “soy sauce?” Apparently, it is like something out of Dune that allows its user to cross time and space at will, except they return as zombies or other monsters. Like they say, the sauce chooses you, and if it cannot use you, it kills you. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie we all thought Alex Cox had stopped producing. I’d rather not say too much more specific to the actual plot as it might be better to discover this manic one for yourselves. There are a myriad of 80s John Carpenter references as well, particularly to Big Trouble in Little China. Thankfully, it’s also not the type of film where the main character recalls events throughout the entire film. The story twists and turns like almost no other…well, except maybe an old Sam Raimi film. The whole presentation and editing style has a woozy feel that restrains its cleverness and emotional distance I have not seen since Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Not even Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead moved like this. In fact, only the first hundred pages or so of the book are adapted, no doubt b/c of budget and time constraints. It does end with an unfortunate anticlimax that will only leave you wanting more, or at least five seasons worth if rumored plans to make this into a television series actually materialize. Unlike The Hobbit, however, this actually feels appropriate. I say, bring on a trilogy…or two!
The film isn’t perfect, of course. The special effects are predictably limited and do distract. In the film’s favor, it gives it a 80s feel amidst the hyper-awareness that I am sure Mr. Wong wouldn’t mind at all. The suspense doesn’t always mix the greatest with the on-slaughter of comedy. The second act suffers from a contrived feel that brings the film down from the almost drug-induced magic carpet ride the beginning offered so well. Of course, there are animated sequences that explain more than we really needed to know and a scene with Angus Scrimm that is most welcome. Thankfully, the film regains all of its intrigue and more by the third and most important act. Mr. Coscarelli really knows what he is doing here and allows his experience with low-budget inter-dimensional films not overwhelm the delicate narrative woven here. One would never guess that he hasn’t directed anything in a decade since Bubba Ho-Tep, as he does not appear to be rusty or out of touch at all. You might even consider this his grandest work since the original Phantasm. Some set pieces fall flat since the long-winded explanations of the interstellar phenomena render the mood a little too silly. The mood is always gleefully over the top without ever losing the tone through the dark corridors it forces the audience into. This is the comedy Phantasm III was clearly aiming for.
The actors also seem really into this story, particularly Mr. Giamatti, never seeming disinterested or above the material to play along with the jokes. At the same time, they don’t try to out-stage the almost abstract strangeness surrounding them. They try to be relatable to the audience against all odds. They want the audience to like this film, they really want them to. This is not just for Cracked.com addicts should probably be superimposed in text like those “For Your Consideration” ads that appear on DVD screeners. While never being actually scary, it is a warm, inviting monster/science-fiction/horror/buddy comedy. And they probably will like it in droves a few years after most have written it off as too smart for the mainstream and have been sitting on Blu-Ray and playing on Fear.net for months. This is a sad state of affairs, but it is what it is.
Naturally, after a successful festival run the film has been playing on VOD channels for a while now and will be theatrically released on January 25th in what has to be a limited release not many will ever be aware of. I suggest we actually watch it and show the executives that this is a potential franchise worth expanding, regardless of medium. And while you’re at it, let’s petition to get the sequel (yes, there is a published sequel already) called ever-so appropriately This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It to get produced as well. Being in an internet film cult has never felt so…necessary.
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