John Dies at the End

Writer-director Don Coscarelli remains best known for his Phantasm films, but the sum of his filmography is probably even more deliciously weird. Because Coscarelli labors in the genre margins, though, and makes relatively few films, he doesn't really get the credit he deserves as one of the most idiosyncratic yet interesting indie filmmakers working today. His latest movie, the forthrightly titled John Dies at the End, is sort of like if Franz Kafka drunk a bunch of absinthe and then wrote an homage to Sam Raimi, Donnie Darko and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. And that's a good thing.

Adapted liberally by Coscarelli from David Wong's genre-spanning, time-traveling horror novel of the same name, the movie has a plot about which the less said the better for would-be viewers. But, basically, it's about a drug, called the soy sauce, which delivers an out-of-body experience that's also pegged to an otherworldy invasion. The story's framed around the experiences of a college dropout, David (Chase Williamson), who shares with journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti, also an executive producer on the project) the outlandish tale of the escape of he and infected best friend John (Rob Mayes) from a cop (Glynn Turman) who's seemingly more interested in covering up the deaths of a bunch of fellow teenagers than getting to the bottom of things. Of course, there's also a girl — in this case a one-handed lass named Amy (Fabianne Therese), plus a mysterious figure, Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), whom the guys can call on for advice. Marauding bugs and a giant meat creature ensue, among many other amusing surprises.

The best of Coscarelli's work, encompassing both his "Masters of Horror" anthology series kick-off and 2002's wild Bubba Ho-Tep, starring Bruce Campbell as an aged Elvis Presley and Ossie Davis as a man claiming to be John F. Kennedy, has always placed a premium on narrative dexterity and surprise, and John Dies at the End is in this regard no different. The movie surfs along on a cheery, what-the-fuck vibe, and yet nothing about its myriad twists and turns rings phony or contrived.

Coscarelli does a solid job of pulling off the movie's many special effects on a modest budget, blending practical work with CGI, but the performances are quite good, too. Giamatti, who worked with the director on Bubba Ho-Tep, is great as the sardonic, skeptical Arnie (it's a role right in his schlubby wheelhouse), but relative newcomers Williamson and Mayes also make strong impressions. Fans of the aforementioned Donnie Darko and last year's Detention (which didn't really work for me) will in particular spark to John, which has nouveau cult hit written all over it. True indie fans who may be less familiar with the filmmaker's brand would do well to take a flier on this wild little flick too, however. (Magnet Releasing, R, 100 minutes)


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