This review was originally published on February 3, 2012…
That sitting through and attempting to absorb John Dies at the End is so odd an experience has surprisingly little to do with the many extra-dimensional monsters onscreen. Rather, it’s owed most directly to the fact that the near-constant tension between comedy and suspense—usually leaning toward the former—is both off-putting and never fully reconciled. Not all of the jokes land, and few of the more suspenseful moments elicit much in the way of thrills.
The result of this mishmash is a sometimes-funny film sharing more in common with Dude, Where’s My Car? than Shaun of the Dead which never convinces us of the seriousness of its lore or, what’s more, ratcheted-up scenes. The story has a tendency to allude to heady philosophical territory (including an opening prologue which, in its own bizarre way, wants us to ask ourselves whether we’re the same person now as we were a year or even a week ago) when it isn’t parading gore and violence, but this pondering never quite falls into place. It evaporates rather than lingers, most often making us wonder why it was included in the first place.
It’s easy to see how the webserial on which the movie is based garnered something of a cult following online, as self-publishing a genuinely odd piece of work before the rise of e-readers is sure to have imbued it with a certain mystique in halcyon days of the early aughts, but turning it into a feature film some ten years later just seems ill-conceived. Director Don Coscarelli will sometimes attempt to humorously turn clichés on their head by using them self-reflexively, scenes which often end up feeling smug and empty. “Look what I just did,” all involved seem to be saying. “Isn’t it cool?”
Unfortunately, we’re rarely in on the joke; it’s as though the characters themselves are aware of the audience but have badly misjudged just how amusing they actually are to us. Ditto certain of the paranormal sequences, as John Dies at the End too often takes simple, easily-explained phenomena and treats them as profound mysteries around which to base entire set pieces. What’s meant to be oddball is usually just silly.
Perhaps most inexplicable of all is the presence of the always-great Paul Giamatti (also credited as executive producer), whose estimable talents are woefully out of place here. At first appearing to grant the goings on an air of credibility, he ultimately draws attention to how lackluster they are.
The genre-melding aims of John Dies at the End are noble enough, but it falls flat in nearly every regard. It’s never scary and rarely funny, yet pleased with itself all the same. What it expects of the audience is disproportionate to what it offers, and so we’re left doing most of the work without getting much in return.