John Dies at the End: Sundance Film Review

Horror-comedy from Phantasm director starts with a bang but quickly loses speed.

The comic horror movie, written and directed by Don Coscarelli, imagines what happens when two twentysomethings take a gooey, mind-altering substance that frees them from the space-time continuum and allows them to read others' minds.

PARK CITY — A supernatural action comedy that can never live up to its exciting opening scenes, Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End mixes horror-tinged mayhem with smart-alec laughs but loses momentum early and gets bogged down in exposition. The director's culty track record (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) may draw a small audience to theaters, but the pic will quickly be courting genre die-hards on home video.

Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes play Dave and John, twentysomethings introduced to a gooey, mind-altering substance, dubbed soy sauce, that frees them from the space-time continuum and allows them to read others' minds. It's not all fun and party tricks, though: taking the stuff makes them targets for all manner of icky, slithering beasts and interdimensional gnat swarms, only some of which are easy to squash. Attacks from these critters lend themselves to Sam Raimi-ish camera moves, though Coscarelli isn't as good as the Evil Dead director at making viewers laugh throughout a grisly life-or-death encounter.

The main story is told in flashback, as Dave narrates to a newspaper reporter played by Paul Giamatti. While Giamatti brings welcome charisma to the cast, the framing device takes some air out of the story and leads viewers to expect a more clever overarching narrative than we actually get.

The movie's look is appealingly garish, and its effects work will please genre buffs, blending CGI with old-school techniques to good, tongue-in-cheek effect. But what first looks like a quirkier, more gory Men in Black lacks that film's coherence and doesn't compensate with fresh ideas. Twenty years ago, John Dies might have easily drawn a devoted following; today, Coscarelli has a couple of generations of genre-savvy filmmakers to compete with.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Park City at Midnight
Production Companies: Silver Sphere, M3 Creative, Touchy Feely Films
Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman
Director-Screenwriter: Don Coscarelli
Producers: Brad Baruh, Don Coscarelli
Executive producers: Paul Giamatti, Daniel Carey
Director of photography: Michael Gioulakis
Production designer: Todd Jeffery
Music: Brian Tyler
Costume designer: Shelley Kay
Editors: Donald Milne, Don Coscarelli
Sales: Preferred Content
No rating, 104 minutes