Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Cinema File #75: "John Dies At The End" Review

There are many ways in which a movie can defy description. The most common way is for it to suck so terribly that there is no possible way to construct a series of sentences that adequately captures the almost otherworldly extent of its shittiness (See Here and Here for examples of movies so bad I had to speak of other things, because I had nothing to say about the film in question). And yet sometimes a film can be inexplicable and at the same time inexplicably enjoyable, and such is the case with today's movie, Don Coscarelli's John Dies At The End.

The plot of this movie, to the extent that I can do it justice at all, follows two friends, Dave and John, who become informal paranormal investigators after discovering a drug called Soy Sauce that enhances their senses and allows them to perceive supernatural forces typically hiding in plain sight. This premise, combining the supernatural with an altered state of human consciousness, is one that I have to imagine is tricky to pull off effectively, but if anyone could do it, I'd suspect it was the director of Phantasm, and he doesn't disappoint. The narrative jumps all over the place and is stacked to the gills with absurd twists and bizarre imagery that practically dares you to try and make some sort of sense of it all, but even as it throws so much out at you without explanation, it never comes across as forced, meandering, or lacking in focus.

This will sound very strange when you see the movie, but in terms of the ambition, I was somewhat reminded of Cloud Atlas. With everything going on in this movie and the illogic puzzle structure, this should have been a nonsensical failure of epic proportions, but like Cloud Atlas, it successfully juggles so many plot threads and tangents that you would not have thought possible at the outset and tells a story that is, if not cohesive, at least satisfying in the end. Thankfully, instead of Cloud Altas' pompous and pandering faux-intellectual schmaltz, this film is infused with an overriding tone of morbid wackiness that manages to be at times genuinely eerie and disturbing without ever slowing down or losing the sense of fun it starts with for cheap scares or gore.

Don Coscarelli is famous mostly for two things, the Phantasm Quadrilogy and the film Bubba Ho Tep, and John Dies At The End feels like a glorious merging of the two properties. The imagery associated with the Phantasm series and the resulting narrative were based on a dream Coscarelli had as a child, and this new work definitely feels like a nesting doll of nightmares put to film. As it unravels and events get crazier and crazier, with each scene transition being more convoluted than the last, I half expected the story to cop out with the hero waking up to normalcy at any given moment. At the same time, the playful nature of the whole thing with characters placed in insane circumstances and shrugging nonchalantly at the abyss put me right back in that retirement home with Elvis and Black JFK fighting that mummy.

This is the kind of movie I expected Joe Dante's The Hole to be before it proved so disappointing. It's a madcap romp through madness and horror depicted in the way it should be, through the eyes of the increasingly crazy people involved, and I can't recommend it enough. I will say that I thought Clancy Brown and Doug Jones, two actors that I generally love, were a bit wasted, but its clear there was a lot left on the cutting room floor with this one, and I have to imagine their roles in the film were the easiest to cut around. This movie is not going to be for everyone, and I know many will be turned off by its almost defiant inaccessibility, but if you can just sit back and go along for the ride, there's more than enough to enjoy.

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