The great Don Coscarelli created Phantasm, one of my favourite horror series of all time, and in recent years has been lauded for bringing Joe Lansdale’s novella to the screen in the cult-tastic Bubba Ho-Tep. His new film, John Dies at the End keeps him in Bubba’s territory of the trippy scenario as he adapts David Wong’s (Jason Pargin) book that was first published as a webserial in 2001, before hitting print in 2007.
Our two heroes of the story are Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) who are old high school buddies turned spiritual exorcists albeit with a quasi-psychic element. At the start of the film we find Dave separated from John as he begins to confide to a reporter, Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) the details of their special powers and the current perilous situation they find themselves in.
The aforementioned situation regards the somewhat apocalyptic headache of the pending end of the world which may be the result of the sentient alien drug that has been dubbed ‘soy sauce’. This narcotic gives people psychic abilities such as being aware of events that are yet to take place – all well and good you may think, but alas ingestion of the drug actually turns you into a host for an alien monster with designs firmly on ruling the planet.
Dave tells Arnie how at a party one evening he received a phone call from John who seemed to be in quite a state. He ended his night out to attend to his friend, but when he found him it seemed obvious that he’d taken something, a something which transpired to be ‘soy sauce’. Dave relays to Arnie that he too managed to accidentally take a hit of the drug, which although initially disorientating, he soon realised that the only way to get to the bottom of his friends precarious situation was to stay on the substance.
This meeting between Dave and Arnie Blondestone provides the glue to holding the film together, as outside of this the movie is peppered with random events, surrealism and insane humour that could have easily lead it into disarray. Here though Coscarelli gets it spot on and manages to preserve a narrative that allows the film a level of unhinged craziness whilst retaining the backbone of a storyline.
The film has so much to recommend about it, from the gonzo plot to the brilliant lead pairing of Williamson and Mayes – both of whom have little feature film experience yet turn in natural, confident performances with sparkling chemistry between the two of them. We’re also treated to a few cameos from the likes of Clancy Brown, Doug Jones and (of course) the inimitable Angus Scrimm.
John Dies at the End is an unconventional film amidst a sea of predictability in the movie world. It’s a genre bending mind melt which makes you double up with laughter one minute and cover your eyes in disgust the next. While most of our horror icons from the late 70s seem content in semi-retirement or trawling out the same old schlock, Don Coscarelli once again shows his ingenuity and provides us with an immensely enjoyable piece of cinema.