On a cold winter day, you’re in your backyard chopping at a zombie’s head, when the handle breaks. So you take the axe to the hardware store and replace the handle. Six months later, a mutant worm breaks into your kitchen and jumps for your neck. One chop of the axe and it dies, but the head chips against the marble counter. You go back to the hardware store and switch the axe head with a new one. So when the zombie appears at your door with a brand new head on its body, you grab the axe and go to swing. The zombie yells, “That’s the axe that beheaded me!”
Is he right?
John Dies at the End starts with an unanswerable question and sets the tone for the entire movie. The film, selected for TIFF Midnight Madness, is a smorgasbord of impossible questions that begs the audience to ask why or how, which it rarely bothers to answer them. Yet, the bewildering nature of John Dies at the End allows it to be both hilarious and genuinely frightening.
Surrealism should be expected from director Don Coscarelli, whose last movie, Bubba Ho-Tep, dealt with a black JFK and a geriatric Elvis fighting a mummy’s curse. His new film is based on a book with the same name by David Wong, though the movie has to scrap much of the novel in favour of a coherent narrative. Fans of the book will be pleased to see that the film keeps the constant onslaught of insanity.
The film is structured around the disturbed David Wong (no relation), played by first-timer Chase Williamson, explaining to Arnie, the dirtbag journalist, about the time he almost saved the world. Thanks to a drug called soy sauce, David and his friend John can see and fight the paranormal, which leads them to a magic cult leader, hot dog hotlines to the dead, a meat monster, and other nonsense. As Arnie, Paul Giamotti has a lot of fun reacting to Williamson’s story, chewing up the scenery. His scenes don’t last long but do a good job of grounding some of the more ridiculous moments.
Even amongst the madness though, there’s always fear. Each threat is clearly and immediately dangerous and the escape is never clear. The way to beat these creatures is usually as deranged as the creatures themselves, allowing Coscarelli to exploit the nervous chuckle that comes after a brief scare and make it raucous laughter.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about John Dies at the End is how it creates its own mythology. David and John fight these monsters, but they aren’t the only ones, nor are they particularly good at it. There are other better hunters, and other universes to go along with them. The size of its world does not consistently work to its advantage, however. The movie explains so little that it drains some of the spontaneity, leaving you lost in a series of weird events. At some point, the audience simply nods their heads, accepting whatever comes their way.
John Dies at the End is a lot of fun, if a little tiring by the end. There’s certainly more to be done with these characters and the world around them. If only the Corscarelli could eliminate the drain of constant absurdity. Then you could expect something truly surprising.
Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Top image: A scene from John Dies at the End. Courtesy TIFF.