Based on the cult novel first serialized on the web, John Dies At The End tells the tale of two twenty-somethings who battle demons while tripping on extra-dimensional hallucinogens.
The titular John, is either unstuck in time and living in multiple, parallel planes of reality, or is perhaps dead and being projected from memory by the film's psychic protagonist Dave. But they weren't always like this. It all started when they met this Jamaican drug dealer.
"Time is an illusion," he says, and he's our gateway to "soy sauce," the otherworldly junk that looks like tar at the edge of a syringe before it grows spikes...or turns into a beetle and dives into your cheek. John's taste of the stuff may start the story chronologically, but we don't see it until a good thirty minutes in, long enough for most audience members to decide if they will check out from this cinematic oddity or stay for the full ride.
Don Coscarelli, director of the Phantasm films, The Beastmaster and, more recently, Bubba Ho-Tep, opens John with one of the better pre-title sequences I've seen in a while. With gliding, precise camera moves and zippy editing our hero Dave presents a philosophical question: if you break an axe handle cutting off someone's head, replace it, chip the blade slicing a slithery sharp-toothed slug from another world, then replace that too, is it the same blade?
The mix of whacked-out sci-fi and urban fantasy concepts mixed with deadpan humor is what made David Wong's book such a success. Wong is the nom de plume of Cracked.com's editor Jason Pargin – the man who changed the house of Sylvester P. Smythe into one of the essential pillars of the Internet - and he's one of these guys for whom just one nifty concept is not enough for a chapter in a story.
David Wong is also the chosen name of our anonymity-seeking lead character, played by newcomer Chase Williamson, who tells an interviewing journalist Paul Giamatti that Wong is the most common name in the world. Dave's tales to Giamatti offer (or, at least, attempt to offer) enough of a framing device to keep the narrative on track.
It doesn't quite work, and that's certainly a big problem, but not so much that it keeps John Dies At The End from being a great deal of fun. When you see an overturned freezer full of foodstuffs become animated Jan Svankmajer-style and assemble into a turkey-headed, sausage-draped meat monster, character development and motivation will be the last thing on your mind.
John Dies At The End works best as a string of stand-up-and-cheer midnight movie set pieces. It is less scary than it is...strange.
More than once I was reminded of Buckaroo Banzai, although John's humor is a little less projected to the cheap seats and more twisted. The philosophy is similar, but the catalytic narcotics are different.
At the Sundance midnight premiere, the genre audience was eating it up and asking for seconds. And, I mean that literally, as there were calls for a sequel during the audience Q&A. But I can't in good faith recommend this film without some reservations. While part of me says to shut up and be grateful that such a movie even exists, I'm unable to quell my desire for something that has all this craziness as well as a discernible story.
A full hour into John Dies At The End I nearly mumbled aloud "when is this movie ever going to start?" The fractured timeline and willingness to slip into tangential sequences prevents John from ever settling into a groove. The film is just too slippery to get ahold of. It's frustrating, but this frustration is always mitigated with, you know, a blonde dude walking down the street using a Bratwurst as a cellphone. Or Clancy Brown as a TV self-help guru. Or spiked baseball bats with bible pages on them. Or World War I-era planes built around giant insect technology Or Doug Jones being...Doug Jones.
John Dies At The End is brimming with creativity, but there are moments when the seams show. A boss battle with the Korrok, a giant, purple-ish Cthulhu-ian beast looks like it was shot in a community college TV station. You'll probably see better representations of the Big Bang on PBS. Also, there are also more "cut to the dog" reaction shot gags than in Air Bud 4: Seventh Inning Fetch. Sure, this independently produced film probably cost less than a Hyundai, but these moments take you out of the movie nonetheless.
If you are into this sort of thing, however, John Dies At The End is one of those once-in-a-while gifts that'll keep giving for quite some time. The tripped-out action, laid-back sarcasm and one of the strangest endings ever may make it seem as though your deepest desires are being read directly from your mind and projected onto the screen in front of you.