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By Michael Nordine | March 12, 2012

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.

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  1. Adam says:

    Hey. Nice review.

    Isn’t the real inconsistency coming from the characters, how they don’t motivate the philosophical banter and genre shifts well enough? And are you sure that the philosophical idea you mentioned isn’t an attempt to emphasize the trips between alternate universes?

  2. Vendetta says:

    That’s a very vague series of condemnations you’ve made. You gave no examples to support the elements you criticized. JDATE was not a cult hit because of the medium, but because it very successfully combined dark comedy and parody of horror tropes with some genuine suspense and philosophical insight. It had distinctive characters and humor. It left you thinking. To attribute its popularity solely to being a pre-ebook is condescending.

    Now, because you provided no examples, I have no idea whether the movie failed to live up to the aspects of the book that I mentioned or if you just failed to get it. The main point of your review seems to be that you’re too smart to be impressed with anything this movie has to offer. Problem is, you’re really not telling anyone what the movie had to offer.

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