‘John Dies at the End’ shows distinctive style, great cast

Over the years, director Don Coscarelli has graced the world with several oddities that have been canonized as cult classics. His 2002 film “Bubba Ho-Tep,” for example, pits Elvis Presley and President John F. Kennedy in a battle against an Ancient Egyptian mummy. Coscarelli’s unique brand of absurdity is certainly not lost in his most recent film, “John Dies at the End,” a somewhat abrasive film that features a monster made out of frozen T-bone steaks and a scene in which the main character uses a hot dog as a cellphone.

In “John,” two college dropouts, Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), become responsible for saving the world after they come into contact with a drug called Soy Sauce, which blurs the border between earth and another dimension. As reality crumbles in front of their eyes, they search for a way to save mankind with the help of their friends and a dog named Bark Lee.

“John” does an admirable job of not tying itself to a single genre. Although recurrent use of suspense — especially at the beginning of the film — points “John” in the horror/thriller direction, its tense mood is frequently undercut by ample opportunity for laughs, and in one instance by a highly stylized animation sequence depicting a series of gory killings.

The narrative structure is odd, though that is to be expected from a film adapted from a David Wong novel. Viewers are often left without the slightest notion as to what is coming next. As the title suggests, John dies at the end, but this ending is relatively insignificant with regard to the overall plot.

“John” features both good acting and an array of impressive practical effects, but it falls short in the special effects department. Some of the computer-generated backdrops in the later scenes are unconvincing, and portions of the green screen are visible around the edges of certain characters. Williamson is a highlight as Dave, as is Detective Appleton (Glynn Turman), whose sense of divine purpose is reminiscent of Jules Winnfield from “Pulp Fiction.” Bark Lee, a first-time canine actor whom Coscarelli lauded as the “best dog [he] could cast,” is also a standout. The reliably charismatic Paul Giamatti, who plays the journalist to whom Dave recaps his story, delivers a solid performance.

“John Dies at the End” is a niche film — not everyone who sits through the 99-minute journey into the far reaches of unreality is going to be happy with the experience. Fans of Coscarelli’s earlier work, however, will undoubtedly relish this distinctive series of acid trips encapsulated in a single film.

A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 30 print edition. Jon Marcus is a contributing writer. Email him at film@nyunews.com.

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