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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Crazed horror-comedy 'John Dies at the End' deserves cult status

THE SOY SAUCE IS TO DIE FOR: Chase Williamson and Paul Giamatti
  • Courtesy of Magnet
  • THE SOY SAUCE IS TO DIE FOR: Chase Williamson and Paul Giamatti
The most memorable innovation of Don Coscarelli's Phantasm trilogy of feverish horror films were flying silvery discs, shaped a little like yoyos, which showed a distressing tendency to sprout spikes or drills and embed themselves in the faces of unsuspecting victims. The new horror-comedy John Dies at the End finds Coscarelli dabbling with zany surrealism. Here, a flying menace turns out to be a malignant mustache, which detaches from one man's face to flap savagely around the hero's head.

With its bizarre but confident blend of deadpan humor and nightmarish shocks, John Dies at the End deserves a midnight-movie following. Currently film cults tend to surround fascinating failures - your Birdemics, your Troll 2s - but John Dies at the End succeeds as an authentic oddity with enough inventive set pieces and dorm-room philosophy to compensate for its low budget.

Bubba-Ho-Tep director Coscarelli based his screenplay on the novel of the same name by David Wong (a pseudonym for Jason Pargin). In a twist that hints at the film's Charlie Kaufman-esque mind games, David Wong is also the name adopted by the protagonist (Chase Williamson), despite being an average-looking Midwestern white guy. David explains that he changed his name because "Wong" is the most common surname in the world, and he's earned his paranoia based on plenty of experience with the paranormal.

After a prologue in which David wrangles with an undead skinhead, we see him recount his story to a skeptical journalist (Paul Giamatti) at a Chinese restaurant. David and his impulsive, slow-thinking buddy John (Rob Mayes), like two bickering "bros" from a Kevin Smith film, become involved in a deranged conspiracy involving celebrity magicians, alternate dimensions and a hallucinogenic substance nicknamed "the sauce" for its resemblance to soy sauce. Soon, David and John find themselves pursued by everything from sinister police officers to a golem-like monster that assembles itself from the contents of a meat locker.

The script for John Dies at the End proves far from airtight and not all the jokes land, but it nevertheless delivers one crazy vignette after another, held together with a combination of "Looney Tunes" logic and a Zen-like belief in the interconnectedness of all things. The sauce infects David and gives him the ability to perceive events across time and space, so at one point, when he's under fire, he "sees" the history of the bullet, from factory floor to the muzzle of a handgun.

No would-be cult movie would be complete without some quirky cameos, and John Dies at the End features several character actors beloved by geek audiences, including Clancy Brown, Doug Jones and Angus Scrimm, who's best known as the cadaverous "Tall Man" from the Phantasmfilms. Williamson and Mayes prove more limited as actors, but underplay amusingly in the face of insane twists of fate. If rubbery slugs with fangs can cross dimensions to assail beer-swilling hipsters, John Dies at the End deserves to find an audience that appreciates a film from a genuinely altered state.

John Dies at the End. 3 stars. Directed by Don Coscarelli. Stars Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes. Rated R. Opens Fri., March 1. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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