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The sharpest criticism I can give John Dies at the End, a new horror-comedy from cult favorite Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, the Phantasm series), is also, I suspect, the greatest compliment – it’s spectacularly disorganized. Chaotic in the best possible way, the occult buddy flick is a raucously weird trip through a wonderfully askew universe reminiscent of Buckaroo Banzai that constantly has the audience guessing where it’ll go next.

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And much like Banzai, it revolves around a Caucasian hero with a curiously Asian name: David Wong (Chase Williamson), a twentysomething Everyman whose glib buddy John (Rob Mayes) goads him into trying a new mind-expanding drug called “Soy Sauce,” unaware that it’s known to suddenly bestow precognitive abilities on certain users. Soon after receiving his new psychic awareness, David is reluctantly drawn into defending our world from an invasion by the hellish beings of an alternate dimension.

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That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the movie’s nuttiness, all stemming from a non-linear construction that also includes a frame story of David telling his tale to a skeptical journalist (Paul Giamatti, who also produced) and glimpses of John and David’s future as low-rent monster hunters. (The title is just another way of cheekily flouting convention and is assuredly not a spoiler, though the fact of John’s existence remains a moving target.) Apart from the easy chemistry between Williamson and Mayes, John sketches a deep and inscrutable mythology through supporting turns from cultishly-adored actors such as Doug Jones, Glynn Turman, and Clancy Brown.

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Everybody but David, a classic audience surrogate, seems to have privileged information about what’s going on, especially Brown, a celebrity magician who literally vanquishes monsters over the phone. But the farther afield it gets, the more fun is found in simply sitting back and watching the mayhem unfold. Some might see the story’s tricky structure – from the eponymous novel by the “real” David Wong that weaves a demonic folklore throughout its drop-ins on the two heroes’ lives – as an encumbrance.

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While it’s possible to lose the thread of the film’s time-skipping narrative, credit is due to Coscarelli for infusing it with his typical anything-goes enthusiasm and devising imaginative ways to depict the book’s woolly, off-kilter style in appropriately cinematic ways, including a brief animated interlude.

It is plainly obvious from the tacky CGI and nondescript locations that Coscarelli doesn’t quite have the budget he needs to give the film a full polish, something he knows all too well as an independent film lifer, though it should be noted that the movie’s physical creature creations are still top-notch.

However, I doubt that it will matter to genre fans who will happily trade glossy production value for a unique directorial vision applied to a ripping yarn. In many ways, John Dies at the End is representative of the Coscarelli filmmaking philosophy, a quirky delight pitched directly to moviegoers that don’t mind setting out without a roadmap or even a destination, so long as they are surprised and delighted by the journey.

When was the last time a horror movie surprised you? It’s been a really long time for me. I love horror in every iteration. I even love bad horror; I just find it so much more fun and palatable than bad comedy or drama. Although I will eagerly gobble up the most pedestrian slasher flick or found footage debacle, what I love most about horror is its ability to be something brand new. The rules in horror allow for so much, and yet filmmakers so rarely take advantage of that pliable universe. In their own very different ways, Cabin in the Woods and John Dies at the End bend that universe in every conceivable direction. I didn’t want to review either movie for two reasons.

First, Devin comprehensively nailed his reviews, as you know he tends to do. (Read Cabin here and John here.) But I also didn’t want to review them because, when walking out of both screenings, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of immense complacency, a feeling that I would like to embrace rather than examine. That’s not to say that either film would fall apart upon closer analysis; rather, I’ve spent many subsequent hours asking questions, carefully interpreting and reviewing elements of both films only to find myself more satisfied a week later.

But with both Cabin and John, I was seized by that very rare sensation of magic that movies can sometimes offer. And sometimes, magic should simply be allowed to transform you. The Cabin in the Woods is so incredibly smart, funny, fresh and fully immersed in that slasher universe that you and I have always loved but so often find disappointing. Whedon and Goddard manage to invent something entirely new for the genre without in any way diminishing what has come before. Cabin could not exist without Halloween, Scream and a hundred other films. They step on those stones with great reverence on their way to something utterly current.

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And Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End instantly pushes the audience into the deep end of a mythology so bizarre and all-encompassing as to make comparisons to any other film fruitless. Coscarelli takes the imagery in David Wong’s terrific novel and turns it into pure energy. The film is so dynamic, so fun, so immediately immersive that it took me a good night’s sleep to shake off the heady feeling of still existing in that indescribable multiverse.

The image cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. This post is disorganized and I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with it, because there’s really no reason John Dies at the End and The Cabin in the Woods, two singular films with very little in common on the surface, should be lumped together. Except for this: I saw them within days of each other at South By Southwest, amidst a passel of fully competent and mostly satisfying horror movies, and with each, I felt a marvelous sense of being given the opportunity to experience something surprising. For someone who gets excited about the least surprising horror films out there, I’m having difficulty expressing what that means to me. But it means a lot.

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