In 10 Words or Less
Unpredictable horror/comedy is perfectly ridiculous
Loves: Crazy plots
Likes: Don Coscarelli films
Hates: When people can't handle originality
There's only so much that can be said about John Dies at the End without ruining something for anyone who hasn't seen it, despite it coming at you right from the start with the most spoilerific title in film history (right up there with George Lucas' original idea, Luke and Dad Darth.) The best thing to say about it is you've probably seen nothing like it before. Actually...if you've watched Army of Darkness, you've seen its spiritual ancestor, though that should be no surprise to anyone who's a fan of Don Coscarelli's previous fan-favorites, like Phantasm and Bubba Ho-tep, marked by creativity and a dark sense of humor. But each time, he raises the bar, and this film is no exception.
From the film's brilliant beginning, which takes the form of a creatively unfurled riddle, seemingly disconnected from the rest of the movie, John Dies at the End is working on a different plane from the majority of cinema. The story of Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), a pair of slackers who battle the supernatural on an informal basis, is told via an interview between Dave and Arnie (Paul Giamatti), which acts as a framing device for the tale. The great thing about the story, which includes intergalactic drugs, refrigerated monsters and alternate universes, is there's no way to tell what's real, which makes everything a surprise, right to the very end. There aren't cheap misdirects or fantasy reveals either, as Coscarelli lays pipe throughout the film, foreshadowing and hinting as to what's coming.
The true joy of the film is that literally anything can happen at anytime, though there's hesitancy as to offering an example of the film's unpredictability, as giving away even the smallest surprise is just unfair. As each one hits the screen, you start to smile a bit more, and once a bit of a scare passes, the smile returns quickly as something even more over-the-top happens. It's the kind of movie where, if you were talking about it with friends, it would be quite a while before you run out of moments where you can say "remember when the...." Though obviously Coscarelli's skill at genre storytelling is what makes it all work so well (building on the original book by David Wong), the cast is quite enjoyable, lead by the understated Williamson and Mayes, who are perfect as a pair of ne'er-do-wells who have found something they like to do in fighting the fantastic.
Though the film is often out-there and breaks more rules than it obeys, it all makes sense in the world of Dave and John. However, what doesn't completely work is some of the devotion to the book, in the form of some of the longer dialogue scenes. Yes, there's a lot of backstory to explain what the hell is going on. Yes, these scenes feature memorable writing and acting. But when much of the film comes at you with intense visuals and fast-paced action, these talkative moments tend to drag a bit in comparison. That said, they don't eliminate the momentum Coscarelli cultivates, and they keep the movie from spiralling into the atmosphere like some anarchic whirlwind. Instead, it's a buffet, offering a little bit of everything, and leaving you quite satisfied in the end.
John Dies at the End arrives on one Blu-Ray disc in a standard-width Blu-Ray keepcase, with an an animated menu offering the choice to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the set-up, and check out the special features. There are no audio options, but subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer on this film features a crisp image that sports appropriate color (including quality skintones along with a rather varied palette), deep black levels and a high level of fine detail that shows off the film's impressive design work well. Digital distractions are kept to a bare minimum outside of some occasional, ignorable noise in the darker scenes. The only real negative is actually a result of the quality of the image, as some of the CGI is a bit obvious due to the clarity.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 isn't the most dynamic mix I've heard in a while (no doubt a result of the limited budget), but what is there sounds solid, as the dialogue is consistently clear, the emotive score comes across strongly and the side and rear speakers get to handle a decent amount of atmospheric sound as well as some nice surround effects during the film's more action-filled sequences. Nothing stood out negatively about the audio, and the result is an engaging experience that doesn't distract from the film.
The bonus features kick off with a feature-length audio commentary by Coscarelli, Williamson, Mayes and producer Brad Baruh. The track is just what you'd expect a) if you've heard Coscarelli talk about his films before, and b) if you know the sense of camaraderie that working together on an indie film creates. A loose, jovial discussion, it features a lot of tech talk, as they explain how pretty much everything is achieved, but they also share a lot about the film's plot, and how it ties in with the book. It's exactly what you want for a film like this.
Seven deleted scenes are up next, running a combined 9:39. These moments don't add much to the overall film, though one explains a slight continuity issue in the final film, while others feature more dialogue more attuned to the book. One, which seems to be an alternate ending to the film, was better left out of the movie.
There's a quartet of featurettes included, beginning with "Getting Sauced: The Making of John Dies at the End" (6:46) Though not too in-depth, it gives you a look at how the film was shot via on-set footage and some interviews with the key players, without repeating much from the commentary. Then "Creature Corps: The Effects of Soy Sauce" (8:35) gives good focus to the special effects work, with a look inside the shop responsible for the film's creative props and monsters. So much of the movie rides on this stuff shining, so it's great to see it get some spotlight.
"Casting Session" (7:43) lets you see why the actors cast were chosen, as you get to see their test reads. There are some minor variations in the material, but it's familiar enough that you should be able to easily compare their first takes on the script with what ended up in the movie. The extras wrap with a nearly 10-minute interview by Fangoria magazine with Giamatti, who not only acted in the film but helped produce it. His interest in the material, genre and especially Coscarelli are spoken about, though the interview feels a touch awkward.
The Bottom Line
Though I have certainly enjoyed Coscarelli's previous work, especially Bubba Ho-Tep, this little gem took me by surprise, as the madness of its originality makes it an outstanding companion piece to a classic like Army of Darkness. This blu-ray release looks and sounds excellent and offers up a healthy collection of bonus features for fans of cult cinema, so if you like it weird, you'll like it here.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.