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SXSW ’12 Review: Weird & Sometimes Confusing ‘John Dies At The End’ Is Still An Odd & Engaging Genre Treat

SXSW '12 Review: Weird & Sometimes Confusing 'John Dies At The End' Is Still An Odd & Engaging Genre Treat

This is a reprint of our review from the Sundance Film Festival. Evidently the film has been slightly editied since then and is now eight minutes shorter.

The problem addressing fans of “Midnight” films and wacky horror can succinctly be found in the opening of Don Coscarelli‘s “John Dies At The End.” It involves axe handles, zombies, mutant leeches, axe heads, hardware store trips and answering a dead man as to whether or not the axe in question is the same that killed him. Confused? If you are, then you don’t want to stick around. If you’re too overjoyed that the spiritual successor to Sam Raimi has appeared, you’re in luck.

Adapted from the online “journal” turned book by David Wong (Jason Paragin), Dave Wong (Chase Williamson) is coming down from the Sauce, trying to tell his story to a reporter in a Chinese restaurant  and not freak out that he’s still in-between temporal dimensions. It all involves a viscous black drug known as Soy Sauce, or the Sauce; one hit lets you experience multiple realities, different concepts, flying mustaches and the weirdness that evokes the mad-cap insanity from “Evil Dead: Dead By Dawn” and Coscarelli’s own “Bubba Ho-Tep” moreso than his previous “Phantasm” franchise. Dave is on a race to find out how his friend John (Rob Mayes) got a hold of the Sauce, why it causes people to explode, how to stop a sentient virus, find his crush Amy’s dog, stop an inter-dimensional sentient computer and figure out why he can answer phone calls through a bratwurst.

It’s gross oversimplification to admit this is insanity. In fact, this is the culmination of serial sci-fi shows that reach the wide spectrum of comedy, gore and what can be done with it in the hands of someone like Coscarelli (also known for 1982’s cheesy/awesome fantasy flick “The Beastmaster” ). Shows like “Supernatural,” “Reaper” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” paved the way for ‘John’ from multi-dimensional beings like Roger North (Doug Jones), who has come to prepare Dave for the apocalypse but can’t seem to remember why; “Shit Load,” the sentient virus that takes over a Justin Bieber look-a-like and wants to open a ghost door using one of the more clever jokes that seems so obvious once it happens.

The sole drawback that ‘John’ suffers from is the amount of information we’re spoon-fed as if it were buckshot. From John becoming aware of all time to the cuts and flashbacks/forwards that hint to where the plot is racing, 108 minutes can feel a bit much. But as a backdoor pilot to air on the SyFy Channel, you’d have no complaints about this film. The mixing of time travel and dimensional hopping, with the occasional creature (a spider-like bug jump scare), is a pure oddity in the best way possible. Mayes and Williamson are cut from the same character cloth that’s shared by other sci-fi/horror duos when it comes to preparing weapons—a spiked bat with Bible pages pasted on (“the Old Testament. For extra damage”) — to dealing with events (“Are we headed to or from the mall,” asks John. “To.” “Oh, makes sense. Fred’s still alive.”). The rules with dimensional demons have a similar tone, since they appeal to the person, which is lampshades, when John and Dave both see a different woman when investigating her haunted house. That bit of clever imagination gives way to a door knob that turns into “the type of thing I just can’t open.”

The oddities don’t let up for a second, especially when it starts with a demon made of meat products who tricks John and George into calling their mentor/higher up Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), whose every appearance is marked with an orchestral chant. Compared to the duo, he’s Charlie, God and the biggest threat to Evil across the entire world—whereas they, he remarks, are the type of people no one would ever expect to be a threat. They aren’t, but someone has to “provide protection.” Even the film’s outro could be its own movie, as John and Dave ignore an alternate universe being invaded by a similar looking slug from earlier in the film because time moves differently there or something.

There’s a lot thrown together here and patched from the three separate stories that made up the original “John Dies At The End” collection. But when dealing with adaptation, the film allows Coscarelli the rare chance to flex his dark sense of humor with the occult characters that are becoming accepted in mainstream storytelling now. The fact that “Doctor Who” has breached American shores and spent an entire season leaping through multiple timelines and stories is proof the audience is waiting. It may be tough to accept, but this is precisely the smart, confusing and engaging story we need to smack us in the face and inject the Sauce into our eyes. [B+]

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