John Dies at the End (Magnet Releasing, R)

johndies 75You can’t set out to make a cult movie; it has to just happen.

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In recent years, an entire genre has formed of movies that are made specifically to become cult classics. Most of the blame can be hurled at Grindhouse, even though I loved it, especially at the time. Tarantino and Rodriguez had played with this material before, but Grindhouse made a very specific choice to go out of its way to look cheap and dirty, which I guess led many people to believe that anyone could do it. Netflix is packed with recent no-budget movies that appear to be made by high school students, using cameras from Best Buy who came up with a title, and decided to go from there. I’m thinking of Run Bitch Run, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, Nude Nuns with Big Guns, etc., etc. There have also been some high-profile examples like Hobo with a Shotgun, Snakes on a Plane, and Repo: The Genetic Opera.

There are varying levels of quality, but by and large, this does not work. You can’t set out to make a cult movie; it has to just happen. Ed Wood and Tommy Wiseau had no idea they were making cult movies, and never intended for them to be embraced in that way. Critics love referring to new releases as “instant cult classics,” but they didn’t say that about the movie Drive, which as far as I’m concerned is the greatest example of an “instant cult classic” to come out in recent years.

Obviously, titles are important to cult movies, and as far as cult titles go, John Dies at the End is a pretty good one. What I like about it is that it is very current in the internet age when some people would rather hear that they are seriously ill than hear a spoiler about a movie they haven’t seen. Another thing I like is that the actual plot is so insignificant that knowing specific plot details will not spoil anything. The way you spoil this movie is to describe certain crazy scenes, no matter when in the movie they occur. So with that in mind, I will refrain from spoiling John Dies at the End.

What is the plot of John Dies at the End? Your guess is as good as mine, but it has something to do with a drug called soy sauce which enables you to see the future, know secrets about people such as which dreams they had recently, and, in some cases, open portals to alternate dimensions and unleash demons. The main character is not the titular John, but rather John’s friend, Dave, who has a much less cavalier reaction to these effects than John, who seems to take them in stride.

John Dies at the End is easily one of the most entertaining recent trying-to-be-cult-movies, and I think that comes down to a few specific details. First and foremost, this is made by a director of legitimate cult movies. Don Coscarelli is best known for the Phantasm series, but he also made The Beastmaster and one of my personal favorites, Bubba Ho-Tep. I don’t know if he’s a great filmmaker, but he’s some kind of cult horror auteur. Many of his movies feature alternate dimensions opening up with less than great consequences. He has a fascination with bugs and slimy things. And his sense of humor feels unique. Much of the humor derives from odd line deliveries. Maybe my favorite part of John Dies at the End is the way character actor Glynn Turman says, “I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing with this can of gasoline.” Granted, the actors are the ones delivering the lines, but it’s a very specific type of quirk that is present in multiple characters across several of Coscarelli’s movies, so I don’t feel bad giving him at least some of the credit.

Another thing I like about the film is that quite a few of the demons and monsters are created with practical effects, and not particularly sophisticated ones. Coscarelli relies on tricks like stop motion, reversing footage, and good old-fashioned puppets. There is also a fair amount of CGI, but the bonkers nature of the movie makes all these disparate elements feel like part of one wacky whole.

If one thing stands in the way of John Dies at the End becoming a full-on, bona fide cult movie, it’s the two lead performances. Dave and John are played by Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes, respectively. Don’t get me wrong—they’re both fun in the movie—but they don’t have the inherent magnetism of a Bruce Campbell or even a Jeffrey Combs. We get reliably solid turns from Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Doug Jones (out of make-up but still every bit as creepy), and the aforementioned Glynn Turman, but they are all supporting characters, and I wanted a lead who stood out more.

John Dies at the End is being put out by Magnet Releasing, which is a great company. One notable thing they do is release their movies on video-on-demand before, or concurrently with, a limited theatrical run. VOD is a great service, especially for people who live in parts of the country that don’t play more obscure films like this. But here in St. Louis, we are lucky enough to get to see such movies in an honest-to-God movie theater, and that is the way to see them. Not because the visuals are so mind-blowing they have to be seen on the big screen, and not just because it’s a movie and the way to see movies is in a theater: You go to the theater for the sense of community. Sure, you could get high and watch John Dies at the End at home, as I’m sure many people have done. But why do that when you could be trapped in a dark room with no distractions, just you and a bunch of strangers and this movie? That shared WTF atmosphere is why cult movies exist in the first place, and it’s the ideal way to see this one. | Sean Lass

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