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“John Dies at the End” review: A demented, dimension-hopping good time

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Some films are easy to review. You assess the director’s presentation of the story, note the highs and lows of the cast’s performances, offer some critique of the writing, set pieces, or any other standout elements of the film, and then call it a day.

“John Dies At The End” is not that sort of film.

Like “Naked Lunch” or “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” before it, “John Dies At The End” is a weird, wild, and wonderfully unique film that defies just about every convention that critics – and traditional media – throw at it. And while that’s usually a recipe for disaster, “John Dies At The End” somehow manages to make all of its disparate elements work together into a fun, crazy adventure that carries you along for the ride instead of making its audience feel perpetually left behind.

Directed by Don Coscarelli (“Bubba Ho-Tep,” “Phantasm”) and based on Jason Pargin’s trippy horror novel of the same name (published under his pseudonym David Wong), “John Dies At The End” follows a pair of slackers whose experience with a new drug called “soy sauce” reveals the existence of an interdimensional invasion occurring all around them. As they get caught up in thwarting the invasion, the drug’s effects on time and space push them into confrontations with all manner of strange creatures and leave them uncertain of what’s real and what is simply another hallucination.

The film stars Chase Williamson as protagonist and narrator David Wong, and a similarly unfamiliar face, Rob Mayes, as David’s stoner pal, John. Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, and Doug Jones highlight a short list of well-known actors who appear throughout the film in a variety of appropriately weird roles.

Not having read Pargin’s 2007 novel, I can’t speak to Coscarelli’s faithfulness to the source material, but given the surreal nature of the story, “John Dies At The End” deserves praise for somehow finding the linear narrative in what could’ve been a terribly messy, tangled adaptation. Instead of falling apart into a series of weird, sci-fi vignettes, “John Dies At The End” manages to constantly move forward with the story it’s telling – even when it seems like a plot point or timeline has veered off into tangent territory.

Coscarelli’s knack for putting an unsettling, sinister spin on just about any type of scene – one of the hallmarks of his “Phantasm” films – gets a heavy workout in “John Dies At The End,” as there’s rarely any certainty about what’s real and what Dave and John have unintentionally conjured from their drug-addled, reality-warping subconscious. Still, there’s an underlying sense that the pair are taming the drug as the adventure progresses, and by the end of the film the ratio of chemically-induced terror to chemically-induced heroism (a twisted, non-traditional sort of heroism, but heroism all the same) gradually shifts into their favor. It’s a subtle transition that could’ve been easily overdone – or even not done at all – but Coscarelli does a nice job of turning his aimless slackers into our dimension’s best hope for survival.

Williamson and Mayes both offer up great performances in their respective roles, with Williamson playing off Giamatti particularly well during their scenes together. Neither Giamatti nor Brown (or Jones, for that matter) have particularly meaty roles in the film, but Coscarelli puts them to good use providing a big dose of flavor to scenes that might otherwise be a little dry. The entire cast, in fact, seems to find just right the balance in their performances to sell the over-the-top weirdness going on around them.

Still, despite all of the diverging, mingling, and meandering timelines that constitute the narrative of “John Dies At The End,” the story being told in the film still manages to stay on a linear course that separates it from many other failed adaptations of unconventional stories. There’s no shortage of mash-ups out there that try to blend elements of horror, sci-fi, and black comedy – often with a heavy dose of the surreal to lubricate the mix – but few of them manage to pull it off with any success.

“John Dies At The End” is a great example of what can happen when a writer and director’s vision syncs up with that of the author of something very unique, and very special. Only time will tell if “John Dies At The End” will achieve as similar a level of under-the-radar success as Coscarelli’s “Bubba Ho-Tep,” but it’s hard not to believe the film is well on its way to becoming a cult classic.

“John Dies At The End” hits theaters in limited release Friday, January 25. The film is directed by Don Coscarelli, and is based on a book of the same name by Jason Pargin (written under the pseudonym David Wong).

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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