When Don Coscarelli directed Phantasm in 1979, the movie exploded onto the horror genre like an atomic bomb, replacing the growing cycle of teen-slashers and cabin-in-the-woods pictures with a surreal tale about a grave robber known only as The Tall Man.
That movie was filled with memorable images often reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch and a dream logic that ignored the usual matters of plot in favor of a creepy, nightmarish mood.
Phantasm is now considered a cult classic. But Coscarelli’s subsequent career, which consisted of several sequels and some failed attempts at the mainstream (The Beastmaster, Survival Quest, Bubba Ho-Tep), seemed to mark him as a one-hit wonder.
But with John Dies at the End, the filmmaker returns to his free-fall brand of funny-scary frights and monsters. The movie is not for everyone: The squeamish will bolt for the exits in the first 10 minutes, and the story is practically impossible to follow — intentionally so. Even though there is a voiceover narrator, Dave (Chase Williamson), who is recounting his wild story to an increasingly skeptical reporter (Paul Giamatti), lots of things go unexplained.
How can Dave and his friend John (Rob Mayes), who call themselves “spiritual exorcists,” see ghosts and creatures no one else can? Why does a monster made up entire of frozen meat (flank steak, turkey, hot dogs) go through them to settle his differences with a Vegas-style mystic (Clancy Brown)? Why does a cop’s mustache suddenly tear itself off the man’s face (ouch!) and start flying around the room?
Things get even stranger after Dave accidentally injects himself with a dose of “soy sauce,” the term given to a new street drug that makes bath salts seem like Morton’s. John Dies at the End is so loopy and disjointed, the movie would collapse if it not for Coscarelli, who is clearly having fun playing with his gallery of monsters, spirits, alternate dimensions and some huge, audience-pleasing gross-outs. Half the effects are computer-generated, while the other half use prosthetics and rubber. They all look a bit low-rent, but the cheapness adds to the fun. Despite its astronomical body count, John Dies at the End never takes itself seriously, and neither should you.
Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman.
Writer-director: Don Coscarelli. Based on the short story by David Brown.
Producers: Brad Baruh, Don Coscarelli, Andy Meyers.
A Magnet Films release. Running time: 99 minutes. Vulgar language, extreme violence, heavy gore, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.