John Dies at the End
Paul Giamatti: executive producer and as one of the stars of John Dies at the End, playing in Berkeley

When is a doorknob not a doorknob? If that variation on the classic Freudian aphorism confuses you, you can probably skip the rest of this review — but if you find yourself intrigued, you may be the target audience for Don Coscarelli’s new horror comedy, John Dies at the End, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 8.

Best known for creating the Phantasm series, Coscarelli has been plowing the independent horror fields since the mid 1970s. Despite the success of the first Phantasm feature in 1979, however, Coscarelli was never able to emulate the big studio success of his contemporaries John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. Perhaps as much by choice as by fate, he’s spent the last few decades developing his unique and warped vision on limited budgets and with marginal financial reward.

Based on a novel by David Wong, John Dies at the End tells the extremely strange story of Dave and John (Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes), two young men who find themselves struggling not only against a sentient, hallucinogenic drug known as Soy Sauce but also with the denizens of a parallel universe ruled by an amorphous, one-eyed blob named Korrok. The residents of this parallel universe wish to bring the benevolent wisdom of Korrok to the ‘real’ world and have developed Soy Sauce as a tool to help them accomplish the task, with Dave and John their chosen emissaries.

That’s about as much sense as a brief plot précis can convey about this film. As with Phantasm, John Dies at the End is more concerned with alternate realities and the passageways between them than with linearity and logic. If you found the director’s previous film – the JFK-and-Elvis-versus-a-mummy adventure, Bubba-Ho-Tep – too straightforward, this is the film for you.

Still not ready to commit? Perhaps the presence of a former Best Supporting Actor Oscar-nominee will convince you to invest an evening in John Dies at the End. Assuming double duty, jack-of-all-trades and big-time Coscarelli fan Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) served both as the film’s executive producer and as one of its stars, essaying the role of a reporter chasing what he imagines will be the biggest scoop of his career.

In addition to newcomers Mayes and Williamson, there’s able and experienced support for Giamatti in the welcome form of Glynn (Cooley High) Turman as an inquisitive police detective, Doug ‘Abe Safian’ Jones as an emissary from the other side who bears a weird resemblance to the character Robert Blake portrayed in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and, in a delightful cameo, octogenarian Angus Scrimm, who’s been a loyal Coscarelli sidekick since 1976.

In a different era, John Dies at the End would have flourished on the midnight movie circuit, its combination of drug-induced visions, slimy monsters, and mordant humor offering appeal for teens and 20-somethings eager for something slightly naughty to spice up the wee, wee hours of the morning. Now, of course, you’ll have to watch it at a decent hour — but you can always wind your watch forward to midnight and relive those glorious days of yesteryear.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...