The director of The Beastmaster (1982), Don Coscarelli, returns to the helm with his first feature film in a decade, an adaption of Jason Pargin’s comic horror John Dies at the End. That title is the first wink in a film that plays like a long succession of genre winks, a movie that feels almost like an homage to the films of its own director, the campy fantasy flicks so beloved by a generation raised on VHS.
John is a supporting player; our main character is Dave Wong (Chase Williamson), a scruffy-faced, beleaguered and blasé early-twenty-something who lives a secret life as a monster hunter. The film opens on bright, snow-covered acreage behind a John’s house, and the young man is hacking at the head of a bald meathead with a swastika tattooed on his tongue. The blade and handle keeps breaking, and the monster keeps coming back – his animated tongue appearing on the counter, the whole man staggering in through the back door with his head reattached with weed trimmer cord. It’s all over-the-top, but the real punch line is metaphysical: “That’s the axe that slayed me,” the beast howls when he sees the weapon that we know has had all of its constituent parts replaced throughout the course of the prolonged murder. “Is it?” Dave’s voiceover asks. Another wink.
The opening scene tricks you into thinking John Dies at the End is a monster movie, but it is not. In the next scene, Dave and John are caught in a poltergeist, with a seemingly possessed girl leading the two ghoul hunters into a showdown with a demon comprised of heaps of frozen meat (it’s hard not to giggle at the sight of the sausage strangling). Then a sideshow is introduced: Dr. Albert Marconi, an infomercial guru who turns out to have direct line to the underworld. A couple of cuts later and we’re in a Dazed and Confused outtake, with a Rastafarian dude blowing Dave’s mind with his ability to read dreams. Then it all suddenly devolves into an inter-dimensional time travel piece with a crew of young people trying to drop a nuclear weapon into a Sarlacc Pit-like monster who is actually the mechanical construction of 19th century mad scientist whose attempts at manufacturing super intelligence went wrong. What’s surprisingly is that none of these genre mood swings are jarring. John Dies at the End finds form in a lack of form, its narrative continuity by continually smashing any sense of continuity.
We travel through time, through dimensions; we wonder if Dave is crazy, or just high on a super drug. Then things get metaphysical, and characters we assumed operated in the real world may be hallucinations – of John’s, of the super monster, of something else, we are never quite sure. That this all hangs together is really the movie’s finest accomplishment. Coscarelli keeps things quick-paced and spacy, and the film’s humor lowers our guard to the increasingly bizarre twists and turns. By the halfway point, John Dies at the End has become a kind of drinking game: guess the camp-horror riff that’s coming next. There’s nothing spectacular about its style, full of eighties tropes (like panning crane cams over small small town main streets, or full frame portraits of villains sporting gobs of makeup), though the movie is dark and brooding-enough to add “noir” to the list of its copious cinematic nods.
Chase Williamson is a lead that plays to the film’s target audience: dopey, silly, lazy, and nonchalant. He’s caught up in a showdown of inter-galactic proportions, but acts as if he’s stumbled upon some rumored intrigue affecting his high school’s administration. It’s this underplaying that keeps John Dies at the End buoyant. The characters and the audience know not to take anything too seriously. So when Dave is knocked down in a trailer home that has just been set on fire by a rogue cop, and then his truck comes slamming through the wall, opening an escape route, but almost taking his head off in the process, we aren’t the slightest bit surprised to see Dave’s dog at the steering wheel. Strange is the new normal.