Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I’m running out of steam as I write this, having been up for about 20 hours on about 2 ½ hours of sleep and I have to be up in a few hours for interviews. So, forgive any hallucinations, bad grammar, typos, brain farts, incomplete sentences and other related signs of complete mental and physical exhaustion.
John Dies At The End was one of my most anticipated movies of the festival. I loved the book by David Wong and I’ve been a fan of Don Coscarelli’s since I saw Phantasm II on cable as a youngster. If you’ve seen Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-tep and know anything about the book you’d realize the director is a perfect match for the material.
The short description is this is a story about a substance called Soy Sauce, a very scarce drug that opens your mind to the point that you can see things only the most perceptive could catch out of the corner of their eye, know things you have no business knowing (how many grains of rice are on a plate in a Chinese restaurant, where that rice was grown, the nickname of the farmer who harvested it, for example). Sounds rad, right? The problem is you can’t choose to take this drug, the drug has to choose you and in this film we see the drug choose two quasi-loser best friends Dave and John played by newcomers Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes.
So begins a ride through their first exposure to this drug, which results in death, telepathic communication, a badass dog sidekick, a meat monster, an evil white gangsta kid, flying mustaches, phone calls from the past, present and future and inter-dimensional travel.
The story is framed as Williamson’s Wong (a white kid who legally changed his name to make it harder to be found since Wong is the most common surname in the world) recounts this epic story to a feature reporter played by Paul Giamatti, with flashbacks and flashforwards as he slowly wins over the skeptical reporter.
Coscarelli’s visual style is evident from the very first frame, which you can see in the trailer featuring Williamson hacking away at a corpse in the snow. The man knows how to squeeze a lot from a low budget and the first half of the movie rockets out of the gate. It’s hilarious, kinda creepy and always surprising. Like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas type crazy shit happens.
About halfway through the story becomes a little more complex and a bit more muddled, but Williamson and Mayes are so damn likeable and the world Coscarelli has built is so detailed and fun that you’re along for the ride.
The whole cast is great. Giamatti is… well, Giamatti. His work is effortless and striking, nailing every emotional beat laid out for him. Fear, contempt, pleasant surprise, hope, doubt… everything plays across his face without any seeming effort on his part. Clancy Brown plays Marconi, a celebrity psychic that can actually work real powers. Glynn Turman (the teacher from Gremlins and... well, the teacher from Super 8) is a cop obsessed with hunting down Dave and John in order to find out more about Soy Sauce. You also get small appearances by Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man himself), Doug Jones and Daniel Roebuck (Arzt from Lost!).
Lots of great character actors in there all turning in great work, but it really does rest on the shoulders of Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes who are superstars in the making. You’re going to see a ton from these guys in the future. They’re very funny and very natural. I never saw them “act” which I’ve seen a bit at this festival. Williamson in particular impressed me. I mean, the dude holds his own sitting across from Giamatti for huge heaping chunks of dialogue and is also able to sell internal monologue dialogue without it sounding cheap and cheesy.
There are lots of practical effects in the film and some digital ones towards the end that look a bit unfinished. Things get really crazy by the time the finale rolls around and I think the ambition might have exceeded the budget for these sequences, but no matter if the focus is Chase Williamson alone on a couch or Williamson and Mayes challenging a Lovecraftian villain that would give Guillermo del Toro a stiffy there’s always a sense of fun.
Brian Tyler’s score and Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography deserve some praise as well. I’ve liked Tyler’s work since Six String Samurai and his John Dies at the End score is rock solid. Gioulakis’ work is sharp, with deep blacks. He captures some really great stuff in the film, locking in the tone instantly and consistently.
I think with a few tweaks in the second half and maybe a little bit more money thrown into the digital effects you end up with a near flawless genre picture, an instant cult classic. It’s a unique film, mixing weird drug imagery with bizarre supernatural imagery all wrapped up in a comedic tone.
Very excited to see who picks this one up! Here’s the trailer if you haven’t seen it yet:
Hope that read alright. I should be able to catch up on a few reviews tomorrow including Rodrigo Cortez’s Red Lights, quirky rom-com Save the Date and Mary Elizabeth Winstead alcoholism drama Smashed.