Don Coscarelli is one of the least used and most fun filmmakers to come out of the late 70’s horror boon and John Dies at the End is his latest and possibly last chance to regain a piece of the pie. His Bubba Ho-Tep was a mini-classic and though the sequel has not materialized yet it seemed the director had done his time in jail and was ready for parole.
John Dies at the End is a nerd lit hit from one of the editors at Cracked and on the surface Coscarelli seems a nice choice to present the material for the big screen. The story centers on a pair of friends who run afoul of a crazy drug that alters reality, time, and allows for interactions with monsters and demons and sentient machines. Things go weird to say the least.
When it works it’s quite fun. Dogs that drive, meat monsters, a demon named Shitload. These are good things. Gremlins‘ science teacher Glynn Turman gets loads of dialogue and he excels at it. There’s a ton of ideas at play but the kitchen sink approach strains under the lack of money the filmmakers had to work with. Additionally the film suffers from a script and concept that’s far too clever for its own good. It tries way too hard to be offbeat and quirky when a lot of streamlining would have made it no less fun but more universally appealing. And easier to make.
It’s also hampered by a really bad leading actor. Michael Baldwin was no Olivier in the first Phantasm but he was surrounded by career-making work from Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister. Here, Chase Williamson is simply too inert to allow for the film to really suck the viewer in. It’s fun but forgettable and I think even those of us with the nostalgia for this kind of 80’s horror flick have too much time spent in front of the genre to let it slide.
Why should I see this?
You have to support your local Don Coscarelli as his films are too few and far between and almost always terrific though horribly restricted by budget. You watch the Phantasm movies and it’s obvious just how much the ambition outweighs the resources. In an era where horror franchises were built around a killer and a weapon the idea of alternate universes and crazy monsters showed just how big the filmmaker’s toolbox was. Phantasm outclassed everything around it. John Dies at the End is more ambitious than anything he’s done and though it comes off feeling a lot more like a Buffy or Angel episode than a feature film there’s no denying the intent. Additionally, by giving somewhat substantial roles to people like Doug Jones, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, and Angus Scrimm Coscarelli makes it nigh impossible not to root for the movie. See it for the effort and the intent, the results aren’t horrible but trained eyes will see the great movie a few million bucks away from reality. The actual result is a bit of a whiff.
A note to fanboys.
Despite all I just said, it’s not enough. Many could easily make their mind up about this film prior to seeing it based on geek cred and wishful thinking alone. It’s not enough.
A cheap fix.
If they’d flip-flopped the two leading actors the film would have been considerably better. Rob Mayes has tons of charisma and charm and Chase Williamson is not the guy you want leading and narrating your film. Leaden. More Paul Giamatti wouldn’t have hurt either.
Good on Ya.
If you’d had asked me about the state of Angus Scrimm I’d probably have responded “a foot in the grave”. The guy is still vital and it showcases just how dumb many folks are for not using this alt screen legend.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Nick On… Is my new ongoing movie review column. The goal is to distill things a little and make it a little more playful and easier to digest rather than the long form. Hope you like. Please let me know what you think as there will be many of these coming and the goal always is to improve. Please share and whatnot.
Previously: The Impossible.