Tuesday, January 22, 2013

John Dies At The End (Don Coscarelli, 2012)

Don Coscarelli has had a unique career. He came to be a prominent writer/director among horror fans in 1979 following the release of Phantasm. He also went on to direct it's many sequels and is the man who wrote and directed The Beastmaster series, which has it's whole own cult following. In case you aren't familiar, the Phantasm series follows a boy who upon discovering the local mortician is actual a being from another dimension doing rather dastardly things with the bodies, sets out to stop him. After making this discovery, the series of films follow this young man, and his friend Reggie the ice cream man, as they battle the forces from this other dimension that are attempting to take over earth. I understand how that sounds, but at the very least, the original Phantasm is worth seeing because it is mind bogglingly original. It matches some real scares with some deeply funny moments and shockingly surreal imagery.

The Beastmaster is something else altogether. It's also a piece of fantasy fiction, but it's extremely different than Phantasm. Much more along the lines of a sword and sorcery variety of fantasy, it follows a warrior who can communicate with animals on an epic adventure, the third film in the series also involving time travel. It is a joyfully silly, fun adventure film in the best traditions of sword and sorcery films.

Those are the films which put Don Coscarelli safely in the hearts of horror and fantasy film fans the world over. He had fallen off the radar for a number of years though. He didn't release a film between Phantasm IV: Oblivion which was released in 1998 and his next film which was released in 2002. That film, was a howling ball of weird hilarity mixed with a healthy dose of horror genre tropes. Bubba Ho-Tep announced Coscarelli's return in a way that made horror fans and fans of the surreal and absurd sit up and cheer like a pack of wild hyenas that have just broken into a slaughterhouse. Bruce Campbell (of Evil Dead fame) plays a man in a nursing home who may or may not actually be Elvis Presley. That's the easy part of the story. The rest is that there's a mummy roaming around that is killing the inhabitants of the nursing home, and when Elvis/Sebastian figures this out, he enlists the help of John F. Kennedy (played by Ozzy Davis). Yes, you read that right. Don't worry, if you actually see the film, which you should, you'll understand and it will make sense.

Needless to say, Don Coscarelli is making very different movies from 99% of the other film makers alive today, and when he's been gone from the landscape of cinema for ten years, many people notice the absence. To his credit, he's made all of these films, and a few others, with the absolute least amount of money he could possibly have at his disposal and is still creating incredibly fun and entertaining films. He is more consistently willing to take chances and try to be actually creative, in the sense of doing things we've never seen before, than most other writers and directors working today. What he isn't, is making movies with serious content even though he's serious about being creative. His films are one hundred and ten percent about being fun, entertaining and original. John Dies at the End is no different. Based on the book of the same name by David Wong (which is itself a pseudonym for a former editor of Vice magazine, Jason Pargin), John Dies at the End, fits into Coscarelli's filmography perfectly, and might just be the high point for his career to date. It's an insane film, barreling at the audience at 250 m.p.h, laughing maniacally, spewing guts and not bothering to slow down and ask whether or not you're keeping up or getting out of the way.
The film opens with Chase Williamson playing David Wong as the character goes through the process of attempting to behead a corpse, with a voice over explaining why he's trying to do this, why he ends up needing a new axe handle, and then a new axe head, and ending with a question about whether or not it's the same axe that killed the man when he appears after having been beheaded and buried. It's played for comedy and it works quite well. The editing, the voice over, the script and the lunacy of what you're being shown all work in combination letting the audience know without any doubt, that they're about to get into something different than they're used to.

And John Dies at the End is something different than we're used to. This is one of the best marriages of material and film maker I may have ever seen. Coscarelli wrote the script for the film based on Jason Pargin's novel, and I don't know if Pargin was a fan of Coscarelli's other films, but when considering Coscarelli's filmography, and where this fits in that career, it seems like something Coscarelli himself should have written. Not having read the book (though I now plan to), I can't speak to how faithful the film is or isn't, but the overall attitude and tenor of the material almost feels like it could have been written by a Coscarelli fanatic who was trying to bring that style of storytelling up to date and succeeded in that endeavor.

I'm not even going to attempt to write a synopsis of the film. The official synopsis it's been given is as follows:

A new street drug that sends its users across time and dimensions has one drawback: some people return as no longer human. Can two college dropouts save humankind from this silent, otherworldly invasion? 

That synopsis is correct and succinct, but still doesn't begin to do justice to where this film goes or where it takes the audience in the midst of getting there. John Dies at the End is like being grabbed by a bouncer, by the scruff of your neck and seat of your pants and instead of being hurled unceremoniously onto the sidewalk, having him alternate between spinning you wildly in circles and going through the various weird line dances we all get subjected to at weddings. It's disorienting, aggressive, loud, feels like it's about to lose control and ultimately ends up being so much more fun than it sounds that it's kind of astonishing. Just when I felt like I'd found my footing and was getting a good grasp on it, the film would throw something else at me that I'd either never seen before or that was giving a completely new and unique spin to something that would have been tired and familiar anywhere else.

Chase Williamson's dead pan delivery as David and Rob Mayes exuberant performance as John are a major part of what make this such a fun film. Both of them are a joy to watch. The friendship between them comes across as real and natural amidst all of the bizarre events and that fact, combined with the quality of their performances, is the glue that holds the film together and really gives the audience the chance to sign up for the ride this wild journey is guaranteeing. Both of these young actors are charismatic in a non-pretentious way that is endearing, leaving them able to give the movie something more to hold onto and to enjoy than just the sheer weirdness of it. The die hard Coscarelli fans are going into the film expecting and hoping for those fantasy elements to be front and center, but if any of Coscarelli's films are going to get any acceptance from an audience any bigger than that, they need something for that larger audience to grab on to, and these two young actors do a great job of providing that. 

Glynn Turman turns up in the film as a police detective trying to figure out just what the hell is going on and not only is it great to see the veteran actor in a role that will introduce him to a new audience, but he provides a few of the films many laughs in a straight man role, that's fun to watch him sink his teeth into. He's always been a talented character actor and hopefully John Dies at the End will help him find his way into a new generation of roles. More Glynn Turman definitely won't hurt anyone. And in no world are there enough Clancy Brown performances. He takes his role as celebrity illusionalist/supernatural guru in a hilariously over the top direction. It's a relatively small role, but it is the kind of detail that really helps sell the film and make it as entertaining as it is. Doug Jones also turns up in a very small role, and amazingly he's sans an entire physical presence comprised of a latex costume. Jones has made a name for himself in creature features in the last decade and I had no clue it was actually him until the end credits, because I've never seen him in a film that didn't have him completely hidden under make up effects. He also gets a few great lines and makes his screen time memorable. 

It's hard to talk about a film like this one without talking about the effects too. Coscarelli has taken the formula that seems to be working best for genre film makers at this point and has only employed and digital effects where practical effects were impossible due to time and/or budget. The result is a film with a few really incredible effects sequences and that the C.G.I isn't plentiful enough and is of a good enough quality that it never ruined the experience by taking me out of the film. He makes a really good decision to never let the camera linger on the digital effects, but is more than willing to let it linger on a few of the practical effects moments. By doing that, as an audience member watching the film, I was that much more able to forget about the digital aspect of the effects until I more actively thought about it later. When the effects a film maker chooses to highlight are all practical, there in real space and real time and they choose to use digital effects in a more fleeting way, the physical legitimacy of the practical effects gets carried over to the digital in the audience mind. By not lingering on the digital effects, he's not highlighting the difference between the digital and the practical and that just leaves them both in the realm of the fantastical and the general area of "effects" in the general audiences mind. It's a really smart way to deal with a problem than too many film makers approach by saying, "Let's just do it all digital" or "We have to do it all practical" instead of using both tools to the best of their capabilities and creating the situations in which they can work together to help create the world the story is trying to project. John Dies at the End does an incredible job with that aspect. 

Along with the effects work, all of the design is stellar. The design walks the hard line of being able to be instantly familiar when it needs to be, but is also a great combination of alien, unusual, but still slightly familiar in the sequences where it needs to be that. Approaching the design this way allows the things that are really unusual about the film to take center stage while also giving the audience enough familiar territory to be as comfortable as possible with all of the new and unusual aspects being hurling at them. There's a lot of this that Coscarelli deserves credit for as well. Having spent his entire career being forced to do the most with the least, he's gotten incredibly good at it. In the sequences where other directors might attempt to go for a look or something which might only end up highlighting the fact that the film has a relatively low budget, Coscarelli goes for simplicity, leaving himself able to use the design budget in the places where it counts and is likely to have the most impact. 

The cinematography and editing add to the energy of the film in a major way. The two things work in combination to create an infectious kinetic style of visual presentation that both adds to the story and gives the audience the same sense of both euphoria and surrealism that David is experiencing, as the film takes his perspective throughout. Where other films and other film makers may have attempted to rely on digital effects or other aspects of design to help instill that in the experience of seeing the film, Coscarelli, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and editor Donald Milne use the cinematography and the editing. Perspective is a major part of the story, and is used so well through these elements that it almost becomes it's own character in the story, in a way that doesn't detract from the story or pull the audience out of the film, but instead adds to their experience. 

If I could point out one particular thing about the film that is lacking, it's that in some ways the details of some of the story are muddled. There are some things in it that aren't fully explained and don't completely make sense in relation to the way these fantastical elements of the story interact with the "real world" or "our world" elements of the story. That's something that I'm sure will bother some viewers, and it's not a completely empty criticism. It would probably have served the film and the story a bit better to have made some of that a bit more clear. On the other hand, I don't really think that's what John Dies at the End is about or is interested in. It's interested in being one of the most purely entertaining and imaginative stories we've seen on film in a while and it's interested in telling a story that hinges on the things we don't know or understand. In a rather amazing way, the film succeeds in reproducing a kind of euphoric experience. It moves so quickly and with such urgency that just keeping up with the events of the story and plot should be considered the baseline for it. Understanding all of the various details related to the "rules" it puts in place for the interaction between the "real world" and extra dimensional aspects of the story is going to take multiple viewings for just about anyone. 

John Dies at the End isn't going to be for everyone. That's an unfortunate fact that I can't lay at the feet of the film itself. That's an audience issue. There are some moments of sheer brilliance in here, mixed with a dark, but deeply effective humor and a film that is brimming over with the energy of an unbridled creativity. The tendency of the tone to move so quickly from humor to something more thrilling to something akin to weird gross out is going to make it hard for much of the more traditional horror, science fiction or comedy audiences to really take hold of this film as their own. For more "serious" audiences, the kitchen sink nature of the narrative is going to come across as being either too low brow or too undisciplined for them to appreciate. The sad truth is that there probably is a relatively small audience for a film like this. I say it's the sad truth because of the fact that it is brimming with a kind of manic creative energy and it disregards so many of the staples of mainstream genre films that if they were to actually approach the film with an open mind, a much wider general audience would be able to appreciate it. In a way, that's the really beautiful thing about John Dies at the End. The audience who loves fun cult cinema like Evil Dead II are going to love it. I even think that the more general audience who enjoy a film like Transformers would find a whole lot to enjoy about this film, if for no other reason than it's visually interesting and incredibly fun. The only audiences who aren't going to appreciate this film fully are going to be the audiences who are unfortunately wed to a lot of the more conventional film making mores and norms. They are also the audiences who are most likely to buy tickets, to write for major film press and to be in charge of deciding what gets enough money to be made. In many ways, John Dies at the End is actually too good a film for the audiences that don't enjoy it. We're just not used to seeing films which are this in love with the idea of being creative and enjoying that creative as this one is.

UPDATE: You can now see John Dies At The End on Netflix, right HERE. And there are links below to buy the Blu-Ray or DVD at Amazon, as well as a link to Amazon's Watch Instantly rentals.

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