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'John Dies at the End' movie review: Laughs, surprises in offbeat horror pic

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John Dies at the End

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If the mischievous title doesn’t give it away, the opening scene indicates what you’re in for in John Dies at the End: A narrator dryly describes not only why he had to take an axe to the man-creature he had killed the year before, but also the awkward trip he made to the hardware store when the handle of said weapon broke off in mid-chop.

It doesn’t make a lick of sense. But then, that’s pretty much your average day in the post-Soy Sauce life of David (Chase Williamson), the protagonist of John Dies at the End, which opens in Atlanta on March 8 after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

It all starts so innocently for David. He’s your average college dropout, drinking brews at a kegger, watching buddy John (Rob Mayes) rock out with his punk band, and listening to some Jamaican pothead claim he can see the future.

But one middle-of-the-night phone call later, and David finds himself in the midst of some strange goings-on. Before he knows it, he’s accidentally ingested a drug called the Soy Sauce, had a man’s mustache attack him (after it peeled itself off the owner’s face), and talked to his dead friend via a bratwurst he picked up from a street vendor. And that’s not even the weirdest of it.

David recounts all those crazed details and many more across a restaurant table from Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), a world-weary reporter who originally suspects that David is part of a drug-crazed, apocalyptic cult before gradually coming around to his story.

Before John Dies at the End is over, dimensions will be crossed, monsters made of red meat will be battled, and a pair of slacker 20-somethings will attempt to save the world – that is, when they’re not too busy commenting wryly on the carnage piling up around them.

Serving up this slab of mayhem, gore and humor is cult director Don Coscarelli, who helmed the horror fave Phantasm more than 35 years ago and scored his most critically acclaimed work a decade ago with the horror/comedy hybrid Bubba Ho-Tep.

In John Dies at the End, his first film since, he keeps the laughs and surprises coming fast and furious, serving up generous portions of surreal visuals, outrageous plot turns and humorous dialogue. Coscarelli, adapting David Wong’s book for the screen, is the rare horror director who seems as interested in words as he is in generating scares.

That strength is also John Dies at the End’s biggest weakness, as Coscarelli isn’t able to sustain a real sense of edge-of-your-seat suspense amidst the laughs and weirdness. There’s gore aplenty, but not enough scares.

Fortunately, Coscarelli compensates with a strong cast. Williamson, making his acting debut fresh off graduating USC Film School, nails the role. Amidst the film’s chaos, he maintains a deadpan, droll demeanor that’s frequently hilarious while keeping the bizarre scenarios a little more relatable.

Likewise, Oscar winner Giamatti – a big fan of cult horror fare – brings a professionalism and gravitas to the proceedings that lifts it above typical genre fare. His reaction to an otherwordly creature in David’s car provides one of the film’s biggest jolts of genuine horror and menace.

Despite the film’s title, you’ll never guess where John Dies at the End is going next – from its axe-wielding start right through to its ridiculous but fun finale. No need for a hit of the Soy Sauce to enjoy this cinematic head trip.

Grade: B

"John Dies at the End" opens in Atlanta on March 8 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Follow me at http://twitter.com/ATLFilmExaminer.

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