It's going for R. Like, there was no plan for a PG-13. Heck, I'm sure they were worried about an NC-17 if they kept pushing the line any further.
DIRECTOR: Don Coscarelli
I'm the common denominator in most of the movies I don't love. In college, I would have been all about this movie. Heck, less than a decade ago, I think I would have preached it to everyone I knew. I loved Bubba Ho-Tep. LOVED IT. I thought it was one of my favorite horror movie because it was just so tongue-in-cheek. I didn't realize that John Dies at the End was also made by Don Coscarelli. I never got into Phantasm, but I liked the direction that this director was going. (Direction for a director seems a bit on the nose, right?) He seemed to really have fun with Bubba Ho-Tep and I suppose the same could be said for John Dies at the End. But if I had to give a criticism for Bubba Ho-Tep is that it is very afraid to be emotionally vulnerable. The characters are so over the top that there is no real humanity in these characters. John Dies at the End has the exact same problem, only add the fact that the movie knows that it is clever. That's a dangerous combo.
I like clever stuff a lot. As a fan of genre, clever sometimes can take precedence over substance. I tend to like stuff like Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but those shows really know how to not sacrifice the meal for the dessert. John Dies at the End really does have clever moments. But these moments are extremely telegraphed. Really, from the opening of the movie that can be seen in the trailer, the movie is very self-aware of how clever it is. While I love clever stuff, the movie feels almost smug about how much smarter it is than its audience. The real kicker is that a lot of the stuff that is bragged about isn't all that impressive. Some things really got me, which is like an addiction for me. But many of the reveals that were lauded as genius just left me in a "meh" mood. That's no good because with such a shaky foundation like cleverness isn't one that can really stand without proving it really works. SPOILER: I will say that my favorite clever moment is the title not proving to be true. That was more about gutsy than being clever, so I will give points to that. There are other moments that kind of work too. The revelation of Paul Giamatti's character is pretty great. The setup for that was well planned and the execution works pretty well. But the Paul Giamatti thing is a fun structural thing and isn't really central to David's primary conflict. The main conflict is actually pretty dumb. Things are weird for the sake of being weird and fun. I'm not going to go full on Twin Peaks on John Dies at the End, but there are some moments that just relish in the fact that they are being weird. Perhaps it's because I'm married with kids, but the nudity in the movie was extremely dumb and it felt childish. I guess that's what I'm trying to say with this extremely meandering paragraph. This movie is very childish and I think I've grown out of it.
I don't know what Don Coscarelli's story is. He keeps making these low budget horror movies. He's never achieved the fame of a Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. Considering that he's made so many beloved cult horror movies, I'm amazed that it seems that his movies seem more and more cheaply made. This movie, a lot of the time, looks like absolute garbage. It's one of those movies like The Room that over-relies on really bad green screen. It is very odd to see a poorly dressed Clancy Brown standing in front of a digital background. I'm not saying that Clancy Brown needs the red carpet, but it definitely feels like he's slumming in this movie. I have no idea how the movie got Paul Giamatti for this movie. I noticed that he's only in two scenes, which are admittedly long. I wonder if they had Giamatti for a day and they just knocked out all of his scenes in that moment. None of Giamatti's scenes are green screened. He gets the practical effects and low spectacle moments. It's odd that such a chincy movie can pull in someone like Giamatti. Maybe Giamatti is just a fan of Coscarelli's. I don't know. But Giamatti is what makes the movie kind of grounded. I remember seeing Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula and watching Keanu Reeves acting across from Anthony Hopkins. There's a little bit of that going on in this movie where Giamatti is giving his all in his scenes and the other actor, Chase Williamson, not holding a candle to him. It's not nearly as bad as Hopkins and Reeves because Williamson kind of holds his own and is watchable. But there is such a jump between Giamatti's performance and Williamson's. Williamson, like most of the movie, doesn't really have the emotional intensity so much as he plays cool for most of the film. He does emote, but in not subtle ways at all. Upon further thought, Giamatti is playing Giamatti, but that's fine because I really like that product.
The middle of the movie might, for once, be the most interesting part of the film. There's a period where Dave is running from the cop. The cop is the mayor from
The Wire, Glynn Turman. Turman is great and it really helps that I'm on season five of The Wire. (I know, I haven't finished it yet. I have stuff to look forward to still. Leave me a lone.) The mystery of this sequence weirdly works, despite the fact that they payoff isn't fantastic. The movie kind does this implicit promise that there is a way to figure out everything that is going on. The problem is that it doesn't really pay off on that promise. Things are weird just because and if I can move past that point, I can at least appreciate the fact that they got me intellectually invested in the plot on screen. As much as I crap on the cleverness, when I did invest in the cleverness, it worked. There were a couple of really solid chuckles that came out of the cleverness. The hot dog? That's fun. But the movie really liked making up a lot of the rules as it went alone. I read the Wikipedia article on this and it was based on episodic graphic novels online which were never meant to be one cohesive story. You can kind of tell with that attitude that not everything was exactly meant to fit together in retrospect. I don't love that.
I'd also like to add that Dave and John aren't that compelling characters in a sea of uncompelling characters. I'd like to swear, but I'm going to censor. There's a character named "Sh*tload." Other movies have played this card, but they don't necessarily lean so heavily on that being the only character trait they have, being a silly name. The Jerk earned that name. Another movie based on a character by Mark Millar also kind of pulled that off because it was earned. Instead, John Dies at the End gives a one line explanation about that and we all had to live with that. Playing that character across from the very bro-ey Dave and John seems silly. I have to give some credit to Coscarelli who gave Dave the internal C-story of trying to get his one-handed girlfriend back, but it was invested in so lightly that I just didn't care. It took me a while to even figure out who she was and of course she had to have a gimmick.
The movie isn't the worst. I'm really painting it out to be truly abysmal. But it also wasn't very good at all. There are fun moments and if I was really in the mood to shut off my brain, there would be something here to enjoy. The violence is great and I giggled quite a bit at it. Some of the creature designs are fun. But the weak moments are so many and so lauded as genius that I just can't help but roll my eyes. Again, and I can't stress this enough, my younger self would have preached this movie to everyone I had known. Think about how many more people would have rented this at Thomas Video had I watched it back then. But if there's one person whose taste I don't trust, it is younger me. Man, that guy got obsessed with some absolutely terrible movies because younger me loved gimmicks. There could be something truly genius here, but I do think that Coscarelli is afraid of making his characters human and vulnerable. Instead, he likes being grossly funny. It's not to say that the ideas are mutually exclusive. There can be gore and laughs while making the people real. I keep citing Shaun of the Dead because I love that movie. It knows where to laugh and creep out and and it knows when to breathe. That breathing is important sometimes. It's knowing when not to joke and when to let a story tell itself. John Dies at the End doesn't really get that. It's a shame, because like Snowpiercer, I really wanted to like this one. But I'm a different person than I was, which is kind of a bummer. I don't want to grow...
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.