Sunday, October 19, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: John Dies at the End

I’ve never read David Wong’s novel, or its just-as-wonderfully-titled sequel ‘This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It’, but I have it on good authority that it’s a madcap romp through multifarious horror genre tropes that manages to be deadpan sarcastic even as its narrative becomes increasingly ludicrous.

Perfect fit for Don Coscarelli, then.

And indeed Coscarelli delivers a film of such no-budget demented inventiveness that it makes his earlier ‘Bubba Ho Tep’ look as staid and austere as your average Strindberg play.

Opening with the old perceptional hook of whether an axe that beheaded someone and subsequently has its handle and then its blade replaced can be displayed as the same axe – only using a neo-Nazi zombie and some weird otherworldly kind of slug creature by way of illustration – ‘John Dies at the End’ continues in equally discursive fashion as David (Chase Williamson) narrates to seedy journalist Arnie (Paul Giamatti) the events which led to him and eponymous best bud John (Rob Mayes) damn near brokering the end of the world.

To say what ensues is a shaggy dog story is to make the hitherto shaggiest of dogs look virtual bald by comparison. David, possessed of a number of preternatural abilities including telepathy, precognition and astral projection, spends a decent chunk of the running time recapping how he and John found themselves working as … well … I would say ghostbusters, but Vengler and co would have to spend a lot of time on Cheech and Chong’s couch in order to approximate anything like David and John’s approach to the craft. 

Long story short, it’s exposure to a drug nicknamed “soy sauce” – a narcotic that’s more H.P. Lovecraft than ‘Breaking Bad’ – that imbues them with their abilities. During their misadventures, David ends up babysitting a labrador that belongs to his crush, the winsome Amy (Fabianne Therese), and what the drug does to the dog would make the judges at Crufts doubt their sanity. This established, we segue into the real story of David and John’s race against the clock to uncover the truth behind a spate mysterious deaths and the existence of a oddball cult who worship a Cthulu-like entity, all the while evading the psychotic interventions of a Bible-bashing detective.

It’s a story that encompasses a meat demon, a womanising televangelist, a church full of half naked people wearing freaky masks, a Rastafarian psychic who knows the date the first nuclear missile will land on America (and still has a chuckle about it), a decidedly literal case of phantom limb syndrome, the worst garage band ever to get their hands on an amplifier, a cartoon in which human sacrifices are made to giant spiders, and the most juvenile visual joke about a doorknob ever committed to film.

Oh, and there’s a deus ex machina involving a pick-up truck and the aforesaid dog. In fact, the dog is nothing short of heroic. The dog is called Bark Lee, he plays himself, and his performance is magnificent.

Working with a budget that didn’t cast its shadow quite as far as million, Coscarelli delivers a solidly-made film with acceptable effects, good cinematography and a cluster of likeable performances. Giamatti, who seems to be coasting of late, has a hell of a lot of fun; Mayes and Williamson are absolutely spot-on and play off each other beautifully, and Clancy Brown is terrific as televangelist Marconi.

‘John Dies at the End’ is utterly bonkers. It defies any real critical framework in terms of appraisal, firing off wild scattershot broadsides at genre, convention and audience expectation – beginning with the title and even ricocheting through the end credits. It’s a film that’s rated WTF and best viewed in SuperSpliffVision. It’d take an utter dullard not to get ecstatically and crazily lost in its labyrinth of absurdities.

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