Skip to main content

Things are in motion, huh?

John Dies at the End
(2012)

One might cynically see John Dies at the End as in instant cult movie, tailor-made as a stoner favourite. It’s sure to be exactly that. I’m quite certain it is already, since I’ve come a bit late to the game in seeing it. It’s the kind of story thought up after one too many bong hits, and the result is a picture that instantly invites X-meets-Z movie comparisons, or reminds the viewer of the giddiness of discovering a weird spectacle with a truly off-the-wall sensibility. If John Dies at the End can’t quite pay off the promise of its first hour, it’s still an irreverent, messy, hugely inventive, cartoonish delight.


Really good cult movies of this ilk really don’t come along all that often, ones bubbling with their own self-conscious bravado, so their niche audience has a tendency to over hype them when they do. There’s a ready and eager demand for trippy, apocalyptic, gross-out comedies that wear their knowledge of science fiction, horror and substance abuse on their sleeves. But it would be unfair to peg John Dies at the End with the less inventive The World’s End and This is the End (one might dispute John’s kinship with these pictures, but I think we can agree they have the End in common). Despite John succumbing to lowest common denominator gags at times, and a “slacker” default that occasionally grates, there’s a running drollery to the movie that makes it very winning. Honestly, they had me at the song titled Camel Apocalypse. And then came the flying moustache.


Perhaps the difference between the geeks-who-did comedies based on formative genre influences and John Dies at the End is Don Coscarelli, a genre darling for three and a half decades but still a mere pup of 60 years age. I’ve managed to miss most of his pictures, despite always being aware of when a new one comes along. A purveyor of cheap-and-cheerful whacked-out horror movies (approximately half his filmography consists of the Phantasm series), he follows course with John Dies at the End. It wears its low budget as a badge of pride, and there’s something appealingly ‘80s about the straight-to-video special effects. I was put in mind of movies like Waxwork II: Lost in Time. Arguably, its general approach of anarchic horror-comedy mash-up finds its firmest roots in that decade’s Evil Dead II. But the loser protagonists set-up starts with Bill & Ted, and runs through Dude, Where’s My Car before ending up here. Indeed, part of the reason the third act (well, I don’t think the movie divides on quite such clear lines, but you get the idea) stumbles isn’t really down to the make-do effects work (lots of bad green screen in there); it’s that the madcap finale owes so much to the double-think reality bending of its predecessors, and so in its own way comes across as disappointingly linear.


Points of comparisons and references to possible inspirations are rife, from Bill & Ted meets The Naked Lunch (that one from executive producer Paul Giamatti) to Douglas Adams meets Stephen King (Coscarelli on the novel and why he bought the rights) to mental ‘80s W D Richter movies (as writer or director) Big Trouble in Little China and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Chances are any given trip movie will come to mind (hence Cronenberg, Altered States, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Limitless) or pictures dealing with time travel and alternate realities (Donnie Darko).  Bill and Ted meets In the Mouth of Madness was my initial reaction, on the kind of budget Carpenter had for Prince of Darkness (although, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ work is top notch in spite of his limitations; there’s much visual inventiveness here, while retaining an identifiably comic vibe). Lovecraft is definitely strongly in the mix and there’s something of the Robert Anton Wilson to the stacked-up over-involved exposition of the final third (which, as note, unfortunately fails to satisfy by being overly derivative).


In most of these cases the name checks are complimentary, since they suggest an active creativity and vibrancy. You’d be forgiven for initially thinking this might be a crude Kevin Smith-esque affair when, on trying to escape a cellar, a door nob transforms into a large johnson (“That door cannot be opened!”) And when the picture goes for crudity it is at its weakest (“Shitload”, Korrok insulting the size of David’s wiener, the knowledge that a device will “sure fuck his shit up, seriously”); it’s the kind of laziness one expects from Smith, and it does a little to undermine the genuine bursts of strangeness. On the other hand, some of the silliest sight gags (Dave talking into a hotdog as if it’s a mobile phone) work because they are inventively sustained or cutely referenced (“Apparently it’s Eyes Wide Shut world”).


Reaction to the movie seems to be mixed among devotees of David Wong’s (Jason Pargin’s penname shares that of the book/movie’s main protagonist) novel of “spiritualist exorcists”, as it apparently eschews much of the explanatory material and character development. This includes the reason for the title (it’s not just a joke about spoiling the end of a story, but I’m not going to spoil it by explaining why) but if anything I was more partial to the resultantly fragmented and slightly incoherent inclusions, which add a Lynchian vibe to the reality-busting incidents.


The inclusion of the Theseus Paradox (if you replace every part of a boat, is it still the same boat?) in respect of an axe doesn’t relate to anything per se, the way it does in the novel, but that kind of randomness, like the multiple introductory storylines (Chase Williamson’s Dave and the axe, Dave telling Giamatti’s reporter Arnie Blondestone about his abilities, Dave introducing John while recounting an encounter with a meat monster, Dave relating his first experience of the drug “Soy Sauce” ; one that gives him psychic powers but is also deadly and appears to be the key to an invasion of Earth from an alternate dimension) seems entirely appropriate. There’s a marvellously loopy scene in which “Robert Marley” (Tai Bennett) instructs the sceptical Dave that “Time is an illusion” as he recounts how an explosion at the end of Dave’s dream the night before coincided with a clap of thunder outside his window; how did Dave construct the narrative of his dream in advance to match this? Coscarelli also throws in seemingly random surrealities with delightful regularity (“Have I died yet?”, “Was that me?”, “Are you my dad?”, “This phone still works”).


The encounter with the meat monster (complete with a frozen turkey head) is wonderfully shoe-string and all the more effective for it (there’s even stop motion!), while the budget creatures seen out of the corner of the eye (on ceilings or in cages) manage to tread that fine line between naff and disturbing. However, the one-eyed Korrok is a failure, since it’s just what you’d expect from a tale wearing its extra-space/time realms and creature influences on its sleeve.


Coscarelli populates John with a cast of new and familiar faces. Williamson, called on to deliver reams of voiceover in a not-quite-there air of resignation, avoids the “whacky” tone of many a stoner movie. Rob Mayes is more in line with that pose, but he lends John a guileless affability. Giamatti is great, but he always is; his presence lends the picture a peculiar credibility even though his role is not a large one. Then there are the horror movie icons Doug Jones (Pinhead in Hellraiser) and Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man in Phantasm). Clancy Brown is very funny, but underused, as TV psychic Marconi while The Wire’s Glynn Turman is also memorable as world-weary police detective. And there’s a sterling performance from intrepid and fearless hound Bark Lee, playing himself (his best moment comes driving a car).


Coscarelli’s delirious psychedelic comic book mindbender does a great job shuffling in and out of warped realities and fractured consciousnesses.  It’s drawback is that Wong’s choice of slacker protagonists identifies it too clearly with a company of fellow drop-out comedies. It’s a product of a geekdom that gives voice to its influences rather than subsumes them, but at heart it’s more akin to a comic variant on Richard Kelly’s oeuvre than guilty of the shameless plundering of Wright & Pegg et al. Of course, aficionados of both those oeuvres will doubtless be rolling a big fat one before indulging, and the same applies here.


****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

Now we're all wanted by the CIA. Awesome.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
(SPOILERS) There’s a groundswell of opinion that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best in near 20-year movie franchise. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but only because this latest instalment and its two predecessors have maintained such a consistently high standard it’s difficult to pick between them. III featured a superior villain and an emotional through line with real stakes. Ghost Protocol dazzled with its giddily constructed set pieces and pacing. Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth entry has the virtue of a very solid script, one that expertly navigates the kind of twists and intrigue one expects from a spy franchise. It also shows off his talent as a director; McQuarrie’s not one for stylistic flourish, but he makes up for this with diligence and precision. Best of all, he may have delivered the series’ best character in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust (admittedly, in a quintet that makes a virtue of pared down motivation and absen…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.