By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 9, 2013 at 12:50PM
For a Hollywood product, this attempt to capitalize on a seemingly impeccable form of genre reinvention might feel fresh. However, movies produced for far less and operating under fewer constraints routinely pay homage to filmic traditions with heightened creativity. The attempt by "Gangster Squad" to enliven the noir mold rings false not because its intentions are obvious but because the experience of such lightweight intentions feel joyless. By comparison, Don Coscarelli's noir-fantasy-comedy-whatsit "John Dies at the End," which came out this month on VOD ahead of next week's theatrical release, nimbly channels a number of familiar ingredients with a great sense of fun.
Blending the spirit of "Ghostbusters" with "Naked Lunch," the "Phantasm" director's adaptation of Jason Pargin's novel follows David (Chase Williamson), a quasi-psychic sort empowered by an otherworldly black drug called "the sauce." Along with his pal John (Rob Mayes), the two spend their days investigating paranormal activities (a gig that makes them look like kids in costumes playing around, like much of the movie). As David recalls how he came upon the sauce to a skeptical journalist (Paul Giamatti), the movie flashes back to the most surreal cascade of events young American movie stars have endured since Gregg Araki's "Kaboom!," the last movie to indulge in a trippy, free-for-all adventure with a pure commitment to its own internal logic. In "John Dies at the End," expectations are constantly abandoned for pure silliness taken at face value.
After accidentally taking a hit from the black stuff, David starts to hallucinate about creatures from another world attacking him while he's driving; in jail, he's told that his pal John has died from an overdose, then receives a call from the deceased man in another state of being. Psychically connected, the two join forces to face down a threat of…something. This describes about a third of the movie, which eventually involves talking dogs, intergenerational battles and a ginormous alien spider crab. Recut since its original Sundance premiere, "John Dies at the End" is a ludicrous mess, but also a wild ride.
The whole thing might sound too farcical for comparison to "Gangster Squad," but Fleisher's movie features the same lopsided approach with less willingness to embrace it. Instead, we get a by-the-numbers attempt at the same foreboding atmosphere that's so enjoyably charged in "John Dies at the End," an alternately witty and ominous romp that repeatedly doubles back on each new development (and there are so, so many) just for the hell of it. Both movies revolve around a hero facing impossible odds who provides the sly voiceover narration. But "John Dies at the End" creates the impression of journeying into a peculiar universe of subjectivity in which anything goes -- an enticing form of unhindered movie magic that "Gangster Squad" sorely lacks.
"Gangster Squad": C-
"John Dies at the End": B+
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? Originally slated for release last year, "Gangster Squad" was pushed to January after some of its scenes of gun violence were deemed too similar to the Aurora shooting; since then, the Newton massacre has made that decision moot, which might make it a tough proposition for some people. While it may top a weak January box office, it seems unlikely to maintain much traction in the coming weeks. It opens nationwide on Friday.
"John Dies at the End" is currently available through Magnet on VOD, where it belongs and should perform well due to its intriguing premise and genre hooks. It may stand a chance at mildly respectable theatrical returns for the same reason, but will only get a limited release on January 25.