In the decade since 2002’s “Bubba Ho-Tep,” writer-director Don Coscarelli has only completed a “Masters of Horror” episode. In fairness, fellow horror mavericks Joe Dante and John Carpenter also contributed efforts to said series, but they all seem to have fallen victim to the same lull in getting new projects off the ground.
It’s a shame, given their prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but hope springs eternal -- maybe not with Carpenter’s dreary “The Ward,” or with Dante’s kid-friendly “The Hole,” but at the very least with Coscarelli’s latest, a lively adaptation of beloved cult novel “John Dies at the End.”
After kicking off with a briskly brilliant pre-title riddle that encapsulates the grisly, goofy charms in store, the story eventually settles down as David Wong (the book’s own author, a pseudonym played on screen by Chase Williamson) fills in skeptical reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti) on the recently news-worthy consequences of a local street drug named “soy sauce” and why it’s come down to a pair of certified slackers like him and John (Rob Mayes) to save the day.
And yes, that would be dead John, or is he, given that the narrative tends to reflect the mysterious trans-dimensional, time-skipping properties of the “sauce.” It can be a bit overwhelming at first, as we meet Dave and John on an unrelated adventure involving a frozen meat monster and the help of veteran badass Dr. Marconi (Clancy Brown) before Dave actually sits down with Arnie and gives him, and in turn the audience, something close to an explanation.
Once the film reaches that core, the coming zaniness is easier to take, as unexpected to our leads as it is to us. The presence of old pros like Giamatti, Brown, Glynn Turman (as an investigating detective), Doug Jones (as an otherworldly ambassador) and Angus Scrimm (made famous in Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” films) makes it all seem a little less silly than it should, while Williamson and Mayes boast an easy chemistry and, by the end, an understandably unperturbed reaction to whatever the “soy sauce” might throw at them next.
In that regard, Coscarelli’s direction seems well-suited to the free-wheeling material, bringing a critically light touch to a story with apocalyptic stakes. The low-budget comic-horror vibe that defined “Bubba Ho-Tep” and “Phantasm II” in particular has clearly been enabled by the recent leaps forward in digital effects, bringing a rather far-flung fantasy to convincing enough life, and the complementary use of practical effects for squirmy slugs is commendable unto itself.
Still, in spite of all the monsters and mayhem, “John Dies at the End” is easily funnier than it is scary, and much like the drug at the center of the story, it offers one hell of a trip.
“John Dies at the End” is currently available On Demand and will open in select cities on January 25th.