JOHN DIES AT
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(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
The Horror Thriller 5 Minute Gotcha.
The beginning short film that starts most every feature movie that nearly every Horror Thriller movie can do without. Doncha just love 'em?
I don't. Like opening narration or text, the 5 Minute Gotcha: meant to keep you in your seat while the next 30 minutes sets up the story; keep you waiting through that tedious 30 minutes for something else worthwhile to happen, is poor story telling.
Once in a while it works and is workable. Steven Speilberg made the 5 Minute Gotcha to JAWS work (I'm being cavalier with the run time of these. Some are only 2 minutes. Some - Great Cthulhu! - are over 10 minutes!). John Carpenter made the 5 minute opening to HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, work.
On the other hand, Ridley Scott had nothing to do with a 5 minute opening scene for ALIEN. It just didn't exist. It didn't exist for John Carpenter's THE THING and it didn't exist for James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR. They all just jumped right into the movie.
So yeah, I usually don't like the 5 minute opening scene, particularly when it is its own self-contained short film that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
In JOHN DIES AT THE END, there is the obligatory 5 minute Gotcha short film. It introduces the lead character, David Wong (Chase Williamson), who is also the narrator of the movie, and what happens to him has zip to do with everything that comes after.
And! I! Loved! It!
Without giving anything of the story away, the opening segment, a philosophical question of sorts, puts you right into the character of David Wong and the off-kilter universe he occupies in this film.
After this short film opening, there is nothing more than the title of the movie, and we are off! It's a twisty, fun punch line of an opener!
So how does the rest of the movie stack up?
David Wong is a young man with a fictitious name ("Did you know Wong is the most common surname in the world?"). He has no real family as he's technically an orphan. His father could be anybody and he has few good memories of his mother. What he does have is an extraordinary life that is gnawing away at him. Part of the chewing comes from a drug with the street name of Soy Sauce. If you can survive it, you seem to travel forward and backward into time as well as enter other dimensions.
David Wong has his own little place of fame in the world, despite trying to stay "off the grid". But all the memories, trials, and tribulations are making him lose it. So flinchy, jittery, high-strung David has arranged a meeting with journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti: PLANET OF THE APES , PAYCHECK).
Arnie finds David a little "off", but he's apparently met all types in his career and, in an oddly lit Chinese restaurant at night, has his interview and hears the strange tales David spills.
At this point, JOHN DIES AT THE END, could have easily dissolved into a series of vignettes, and it would have been the worse for it. Instead, this convoluted tale of discovery draws David and his best friend John (Rob Mayes: THE HORROR CONVENTION MASSACRE), into a mind-bending adventure fraught with danger and peril that unravels in all the ways I wished THE X-FILES had, but never did. Left largely to their own devices, and escaping the deadly perils (that John, of course, never quite pulls off), David unreels his tale to Arnie of his introduction to "The Sauce" through a Jamaican fortune teller (Tai Bennett: JACK FROST 2), whose predictions and knowledge of the past are way too uncomfortable.
Soon David discovers that John is on the sauce, and against his will, David is on it as well.
"You don't choose the sauce, David! It chooses you!"
And that's when the whole time traveling, multi-dimensional universe of alternate time lines and earth, past and present come bursting forward against everyone's will, with only the vaguest idea of how to navigate and why.
There are plenty of supernatural comedies in this vein, featuring wildly unlikely heroes thrust into greatness, that rarely ever actually pull it off. For every BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA or ARMY OF DARKNESS, there's a ton more JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER or THE LAST LOVECRAFT as well as so many other movies that were so awful I never wasted time writing a review of them.
Director and screenwriter, Don Coscarelli has been down this road before, however. His incredible PHANTASM movies have long led him to the point where sooner or later he was going to take a fork in the road and make a PHANTASM comedy. He already tried with BUBBA HO-TEP. That movie too, like all Coscarelli movies, became a cult hit. But it never connected with me. The humor was too broad and Don couldn't reign in Bruce Campbell's self-destructive urge to mug and ham it up.
Don didn't have those problems here. This is the best, most assured movie I've ever seen Don make and one of the best Horror Thriller comedies I've ever, madly, enjoyed!
Don paired himself with Cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, a n00b to filmmaking who is a full-on wunderkind, bringing the perfect tone of light, shadow and place to each and every scene, making them all stand out on their own while remaining part of the weird madness.
The Cinematography captures Don's unique use of camera angle and movement. Where our point of view enhances the telling of the story by putting our eyes everywhere - and I mean everywhere, every angle - they need to be at every moment and all without jerking us out of the picture or being so gimmicky it feels the director is saying, "Look, I'm directing!"
Don holds us back from the moment when the story and characters need us to be a witness, and right up in the face of the grue when we should see it as if first hand. And it's all so damn effective!
Don did his own editing, teamed up with his BUBBA HO-TEP editor, Donald Milne, making every jump-cut split second perfect.
The canny casting by Dylann Brander and Kelly Wagner (THE GRUDGE, HOSTEL, WRONG TURN 2) brought together a large group of unknowns and criminally under used Hollywood actors and everyone under Coscarelli's guidance brought a sterling performance.
From newbie Production Designer, Todd Jeffrey, turning the landscape of the world into something spooky strange, yet still familiar, to David Hartman's madcap, incongruous, yet still perfectly placed animation in the midst of it all, everyone brought their absolute best.
In the course of 5 days I've watched this movie at least 5 times and every time it's better than the time before. From Paul Giamatti's nuanced Arnie performance giving the madness a sort of anchor, to the brief yet vital appearances by Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown: CAST A DEADLY SPELL, STARSHIP TROOPERS) to Detective (Glynn Turman: GREMLINS, SUPER 8) to Roger North (Doug Jones: MIMIC, BUG BUSTER, JACK FROST 2, MEN IN BLACK II, HELLBOY [all], DOOM, PAN'S LABYRINTH, UNIVERSAL DEAD) as an emotionally damaged "observer" sent to watch us, everything comes together perfectly.
Roger North: "I once watched a man masturbate until he bled! Did he want to do that?"
Unfortunately, JOHN DIES AT THE END also gets an
!!!UNFAIR RACIAL CLICHE ALERT!!!:
JOHN DIES AT THE END is based upon the book by David Wong (real name, Jason Pargin, senior editor at Cracked.com). How it went from being a story posted on the Internet, to being a book to being a movie is nearly as unbelievable as the story itself.
Another unbelievable aspect to the movie is the relationship between David and Amy (Fabianne Therese). Fabianne gives it her all and holds her own against the boys, but going from a stranger David barely knows to affectionately cuddling up with him in the midst of a kidnapping is one of the few jarring moments that jumps out of this otherwise seamless tale. I'm told by those who read the book first (and as usual, people who have read the book first have all manner of problems with the movie), that the relationship between Amy and David takes time to grow and makes sense within the senselessness of JOHN DIES AT THE END.
Despite its few flaws, this is a great movie that I've become fond of in an incredibly brief amount of time. I'm damn glad I bought the BLU-RAY and, with the release of the sequel novel, I'd love to see this become a cable series!
Awesomely fun, fast, and freaky, I give JOHN DIES AT THE END Four Shriek Girls.