John Dies at the End

Seemed like a good idea at the time
Don Coscarelli
Chase Williamson, John Mayes, Paul Giamatti
The Setup: 
Living drug opens door to other dimensions.

The new film by the director of Phantasm is aiming to be a kind of wild, crazy, hilarious and surreal horror-comedy, and... well, I wish it had succeeded. It's just not funny, or scary, or that wild. John and friend happen across a living drug that opens doors to other dimensions, and cause lots of icky creature trouble. But the movie you're trying to get from going to see this is called Brain Damage, and is 20 years old.

So this movie comes with an amount of fanfare because it's by Don Coscarelli, famed creator of Phantasm and later Bubba Ho-Tep, and sells itself as a wild head trip, a midnight movie by design, and an over-the-top absurdist good time. And plus it's about drugs and hallucinations, a favorite topic of mine. So expectations were high. And expectations were dashed.

We meet Chase Williamson as David Wong, who is in a Chinese restaurant with journalist Arnie, played by Paul Giamatti. David is going to tell his story for a piece Arnie is writing. Arnie starts out cynical, but gets serious fast when it appears that David can read his mind. This is because David is on this new drug, which opens up amazing mental powers while simultaneously fucking you up really bad. We then keep flashing back and forward between David telling the story and him with Arnie in the restaurant.

It would seem that he and his friend John run a ghostbusters-esque service that rids people of unwanted spiritual activity. They are called to the basement of John's girlfriend, who suddenly transforms into a monster made from assembled frozen meats. There is one joke in which you laugh, because you want this movie to be funny, where John runs up the stairs to exit, but the doorknob transforms into a penis, which of course he cannot touch, causing him to say "We can't go out THAT DOOR!" That turned out to be the only time I laughed during this movie, by the way, and it was in the first ten minutes.

Anyway, John and David went to this party where they encountered a Jamaican who gave them a drug that is like a black fluid that ripples and is actually alive. Get used to the shot of a drop of it rippling with spikes at the end of a hypodermic, because you're going to be seeing it a lot. John is soon overdosing, and then David inadvertently gets injected, because he stuck an uncapped hypodermic needle into his front pants pocket, as I'm sure you do all the time. Soon he too is having hallucinations and problems with monstrous beasties that appear from other dimensions. It goes on, with David having to go here, go there, talk to this person, follow that person, encounter this, and that, and the other thing, as he tries to evade the police and figure out what the drug does.

So it starts fine, but soon you're saying "Hmmm, this movie just isn't gaining any momentum." And then you say "You know, this movie is generally amusing, but not really funny." But it's amusing enough, and you go on, thinking "Oh, that's kind of clever. Okay, that's a little amusing. Alright, this is moderately unexpected," while nothing is ever REALLY clever, genuinely amusing or actually unexpected. And numerous moments do little but allude to better moments in other movies. For instance, you have an alien bug biting into David's chest while trapped in a car, akin to the moment Neo is injected with a bug while trapped in a car in the Matrix. But while the scene was creepy and invasive in the Matrix, it's simply ineffective here. Later you have David grabbing a hot dog and talking into as a phone, which reminded me of the moment Jude Law pulls out his glowing organ-phone in eXistenZ. But that moment was the cap on a building series of absurdities, and here it's absurd, just without the giddy high. Later there is a lot of interdimensional back and forth that reminded me of the director's own Phantasm. It also can't hurt to be familiar with Cronenberg's Naked Lunch and key works of David Lynch. Oh, and as for the drug that causes insane hallucinations and is instantly addictive and in fact talks to you and mocks you, you'll need to see Brain Damage. In fact, if you haven't seen Brain Damage, THAT is the hilarious horror-comedy you're trying to get by going to this one.

So aside from not being funny, it also lacks resonance, which is the killer blow for a movie like this. Take something like the City of Lost Children (look, here we a talking about another movie again) and and the surrealistic visions work and build on each other because they all have such strong thematic ties to real-world phenomena, making each one ring with added resonance. The visions here are kind of kooky and fun, but I can't think of any that really weirded me out or got under my skin. Nor was there anything unaccountably spooky or unnerving. Or funny, or scary. From the trailer it looks like the whole thing will be a huge hoot with crazy stuff happening all the time and, well, there WAS crazy stuff happening all the time. I had just hoped it would be more funny and interesting.

Anyway, yeah, it was a bummer. The leads are fun and amusing to look at, and the whole thing is light fun, it's not awful. And if you never see movies like this, it might seem like a real pip. I just had hoped for a lot more, or at least some laughs and some visual freak-outs, but alas, pretty much not. It just didn't add up to much of anything at all.

Should you watch it: 

Wait to watch it at home, although you really don't need to see it at all.