John Dies at the End might not totally fulfill fans of cult director Don Coscarelli, but -- with its moments of dark humor and gore and its charming lo-fi special effects -- it ought to at least be enough to tide them over until he can deliver a more complete film that lives up to the best of his past work.
What defines "cult," anyway? It's an overused term these days, and there might be a more formal definition, but, to me, a cult film or director is instantly recognized by the small minority who are familiar with it or him and is completely unrecognizable to those who are not. Coscarelli, then, might as well be the walking definition. Ever heard of Bubba Ho-Tep or the Phantasm series? If you have, you've probably raved about those films to friends. If not, you're probably on your way to IMDB right now.
Playful irreverence and B-horror sensibilities have been the hallmarks of Coscarelli's work over the years, and neither is in short supply here. The film begins with a philosophical anecdote from narrator and main character Dave (Chase Williamson) about beheading someone with a cheaply made axe from a local hardware store and soon thereafter he and pal, titular character John (Rob Mayes), are squaring off with a supernatural monster that has materialized via various meats contained in a basement freezer and encountering mysterious characters like, yes, Robert Marley.
For me at least, there was no line that better summed up this rapidly unfolding weirdness spiral than when Dave, fending off a perceived threat from interdimensional "scholar" Robert North (Doug Jones), asks "and have you ever heard of the old human expression 'I want to shoot you so bad my dick's hard.'" It's the type of line you can't quite believe someone even thought of, much less had the gumption to actually scribble down. You can't help but laugh, and you might wish Bruce Campbell, who was Coscarelli's muse in Bubba Ho-Tep, had gotten a chance to utter it a few decades ago.
I just wish the weirdness spiral had actually led somewhere substantive, somewhere that wasn't mostly just confusing. There's a mystery at the heart John Dies at the End. The gonzo adventures of Dave and John -- relayed from Dave to schlub reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) -- are the product of drug called "soy sauce," which gives anyone who takes it clairvoyant powers, allowing users to, for example, "remember things that haven't happened yet," but also apparently opens up the possibility of destruction on a global scale.
There just didn't seem to be a point to all of the intrigue other than to create increasingly bizarre situations with strange monsters and generate a myriad of opportunities for memorable one-liners. That's fine and all, but it would have been a better film if there was a comprehensible resolution of some sort, if some part of the "soy sauce" mystery had been solved.
There were certainly elements that worked. The dialogue was biting. Williamson and Mayes have a sort-of Bill and Ted appeal going for them; they seemed familiar from the very start of the film even though I hadn't seen either of them in anything prior to it. Glynn Turman -- actually a character actor of some note -- is excellent as the determined and surprisingly ruthless Detective Appleton, who aims to stop Dave and John even though he too can't seem to grasp exactly what's going on.
Regrettably, the film's muddled non-conclusion winds up being its biggest takeaway. The hasty sloppiness at the end actually reminded me of Dude, Where's My Car? Both films seem primarily concerned with amusing their respective viewers, but the smarter and more unconventional John Dies at the End can't really get away with that sort of thing without frustrating its intended viewers on a deep level. Coscarelli is capable of avoiding that sort of pitfall; we know because he's done so before.