John Dies at the End
This movie begins with a riddle: If, over time, you replace all the constituent parts of a thing -- a person, a piece of equipment -- is it still the same as the original? What is identity?
This turns out to be relevant, because "John Dies at the End" is a mishmash of old sci-fi and horror films. Does it constitute a new movie? Or is it simply the warmed-over leavings of entertainments past?
That’s not to say that "John Dies at the End" doesn’t have its charms, but let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: John (Rob Mayes) isn’t telling this story. That task falls to his best friend, David Wong (Chase Williamson). He’s an odd sort who might have hallucinations or desperate struggles with undead neo-Nazis on any given day. He notes tiny details and mulls over scattershot trivia, but then again, what is trivial? When random heads can explode into clouds of buzzing alien insects or ghosts can phone up from the past, it’s best to keep on top of every little thing no matter how seemingly innocuous. Such events are par for the course for David and John, because they ply a trade as sort of handymen of the soul, carrying out exorcisms and the like.
This particular episode in David’s life is a doozy, concerning parallel realities, ghosts, writhing and biting slime vermin, phantom limbs, psychic dogs... it’s a grab bag of the grisly and bizarre. David meets up with a writer named Arnie (Paul Giamatti, who also executive produces) to relate his tale, which unfolds in flashback.
It all begins after a party (as apocalyptic adventures generally do). John seems to have a drug-fueled psychotic break, but his freakout is just the first act in a sequence of events in which space and time twist and tangle. On the surface, this looks like any regular old slasher movie: Dead teens, supernatural villains, shadowy experts who know more than they’re telling, and cops on a rampage. Underneath it all, reality is turning into scrambled eggs, with intruders from another dimension taking the form of fruit flies and a powerful psychotropic elixir called soy sauce stalking its victims. It all points to the End of the World -- unless, that is, Dave and John can somehow save existence as we know it.
The production values are about on part with a made-for-cable movie from the SyFy Channel, though it’s smarter than the usual cable fare (by fits and starts, anyway). Lines like "We were chosen by the soy sauce," and "We must be in an alternate universe of some kind... Apparently, it’s ’Eyes Wide Shut’ World" carry an indelible ring. "John Dies at the End" has got the same weird air as creepy films like "Phantasm" (which director Don Coscarelli also wrote), but also the jokey frothiness of the "Bill and Ted" films --all of them impenetrably strange movies with terrific pop culture longevity.
Moreover, "John Dies at the End" comes over like a cross between "Ghostbusters" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," though after a good long soak in the same brine that directors like Stuart Gordon and Sam Raimi must have been pickled on when they created loopy indie comedy-horror projects like "Re-Animator" and "The Evil Dead." (There’s more than a touch of David Cronenberg here, too.) Genre conventions are revisited here in inventive ways, and the cast has some fun with the material, especially Mayes: He moves through the film like someone confident that he’s capable of better. As for Giamatti, you almost wonder aloud what he’s doing in a self-consciously B-movie like this; his acting outshines everyone else’s (with the possible exception of Clancy Brown, who plays a TV psychic armed with a canister of "military grade hallucinogen," a secret weapon that just might win the war... or, one supposes, might be the reason for all these strange goings-on in the first place).
Coscarelli’s screenplay is based on a book by David Wong (how’s that for meta?). The film version provides some zinging, snarky interplay for the characters; the jittery dialogue and editing, together with the spaghetti western style score by Brian Tyler, brings this movie to the edge of farce, but carefully retains a creep show vibe. This is going to be regarded as one of those DVDs that goes well with midnight, shots of cheap booze, and those special brownies that your sketchy friend likes to bake.