Your enjoyment of Don Coscarelli's adaptation of the novel John Dies At End hinges in the joy you take in seeing eight foot tall monsters comprised of beef and pork products brought to life on the big screen. My guess is if you're reading this site, you've got a high threshold for this stuff.
It's a classic case of the perfect project falling in the right creator's hands. Only someone who brought the surreal, nightmarish landscape of Phantasm to life could do this trippy, whacked out story any sort of justice. It's difficult to describe John Dies in the traditional sense of plot, story arc, etc etc as it's the type of tale that grabs one by the shirt collar and hurls them in all sorts of directions at whatever whim catches its fancy at that particular moment.
Told in flashback to Arnie, a rumpled, smalltime features writer in a wrinkled tweed coat and ill-fitting polyester shirt (an inspired Paul Giamatti cutting lose with the role), John is really David Wong's story. At the outset he's your standard adrift twenty-something cynic that just wants to party with his free spirited buddy John and catch a little residual tail along the way. That is until one night at a local kegger when he has a run in with a mysterious Rastafarian and gets woken up by John's panicked three am phone call to come to his apartment immediately.
The Soy Sauce chose John, and now it was about to choose David.
See, the Soy Sauce is a super addictive hallucinogenic drug that makes LSD look as healthy as Flintstones Kids vitamins. The Sauce opens up the mind to the realities of parallel universes, alternative realities, time travel and makes one aware of a host of alien super baddies hellbent on taking over the human race as hosts for their intergalactic bodies. The only thing standing between extinction and another Law & Order marathon on the telly are a pair slacking underachievers and Bark Lee, a cute kind of half terrier breed that doesn't do to badly handling a stick shift.
John Dies the novel runs off in so many tangents, always taking the road less travelled to get to one of its hundred destinations that it seemed impossible to film. Coscarelli makes the wise choice to film the near self contained first third of the book along with its climax in order to come up with a cohesive feature, rather than what would have been a four hour ramshackle debacle of a film. While what was left on the cutting room floor might puzzle some fans of the source material and surely pained Coscarelli to leave out, it makes for a much stronger feature.
The limited budget of the film acts a double edged sword. On the one hand, the ambitious visuals of the story sometimes fall prey to average at best CGI. As much as we all love the tangible qualities the “man in rubber suit” practical effects bring to the table, the scope of this film would be impossible to pull off without CGI, but the funds weren't quite there to give it the full monty. However, Coscarelli and crew make some smart choices to work around limitations. One ambitious sequence heavy on gargantuan alien monsters making mincemeat on a gaggle of human sacrifices goes the animated sequence route. The film's trippy, nightmarish nature ensures the tactic doesn't come off as a cheat and lends it the scope it deserves.
What doesn't require a budget is good dialogue and JDATE has it in spades. The ridiculous circumstances the crew find themselves in lends itself to some terrific, dry one lines delivered in totally deadpan. It is one of the funniest film's I'ver seen in a long time.
On the other hand the limited funding means unrecognized actors score the lead roles of David and John, a circumstance that makes for the best aspect of the film. If a studio had unlimited dollars to toss at the production, we'd probably be talking about Tobey Maguire as David and Ryan Reynolds as John, and while I mean no disrespect to either of them, the thought of writing a phrase along the lines of “Van Wilder totally fights alien baddies in this film” isn enough to make my bowels turn to ice water. Instead Chase Williamson as the sardonic David and Rob Mayes as the hyperactive John perfectly voice the characters anyone who has read the novel have come to know and love. Mayes gets the chance to bring the spastic antics of an ADD riddled man child to life on screen and he is more than up to the task. The film also makes an effort to somewhat limit John's participation in the events, knowing that too much of a good thing runs the risk of going bad-light eating four jumbo bags of Sour Patch Kids in one sitting then feeling like someone has scrubbed sandpaper on your tongue for the next week. The heavy lifting goes to Williamson, and surround by Giamatti and a strong supporting cast that includes Clancy Brown, Doug Jones and Glynn Turman (The Wire) the newcomer more than holds up his end of the bargain. Whether making with the funny or delivering the sweaty wild eyed panic of an accidental Soy Sauce overdose, he is the perfect fit for one half of this modern day Ghostbusting team.
Genre lovers are in for a wicked treat when the film maneuvers its way into eventual release. John Dies is the best blend of horror, gross out visuals and gut busting comedy since souls were swallowed un Evil Dead 2. It's destined to be a late night weekend staple for stoners, freaks, geeks, gore hounds, and anyone else crashing down from a mind altering trip for years to come. this film, along with the promise that is Cabin In The Woods show that there's a light at the end of the tunnel for fans hoping to put shaky cams and torture porn in the review mirror in lieu of something sharper, smarter and goddamn wicked and hilarious.