John Dies At The End has a relatively tiny budget, but it's still one of the year's most anticipated movies. The novel it's based on, by Cracked's David Wong, was a huge Internet sensation, and we've been starved for truly oddball, universe-melting comic weirdness at the movies lately. So how does the movie of John Dies hold up?
The good news is, John Dies At The End is a film that punches its weight artistically. It's no masterpiece, but it's well directed with good comic performances, interesting characters, an intriguing premise and a story that unfolds at a satisfying pace. I give it two and a half demon-possessed mustache attacks out of four. Spoilers ahead...
The film opens with a riddle presented by the decidedly non-Asian narrator, Dave Wong (Chase Williamson): if you break the handle of an ax while dismembering a body, repair the ax, subsequently break the ax's head while killing a giant mutant leech you find in your kitchen and repair it a second time so neither the original handle nor head remain, when the crudely stitched together corpse of the person you dismembered returns for his vengeance and identifies the repaired ax as the very one that you used on him, would he be right?
As noodle-bakers go, it's a pretty noodley one.
From there, we catch up with Dave at a Chinese restaurant where he meets Arnie (Paul Giamatti) a writer who has agreed to listen to Dave's story. Dave is a gifted clairvoyant and telepath, which he demonstrates by correctly guessing the amount of change Arnie has in his pocket as well as the (hilariously Oedipal) details of the dream he had the night before.
Intrigued, Arnie listens as Dave tells the story of how he and his friend John (Rob Mayes) fell under the influence of "Soy Sauce," a street drug that gives users the ability to peer into the future as well as into alternate dimensions. What follows can best be described as a madcap joyride through a wonderland of movie tropes and philosophical conundra culminating in a voyage across time, space and alternate reality to the ultimate truth of the mystery of Soy Sauce and, just maybe, life itself.
Director Don Coscarelli, a 30-year veteran of subconscious-tickling, oddball horror, has found a kindred spirit in David Wong. Wong, whose real name is Jason Pargin, is a senior editor at Cracked.com, a humor site specializing in culture and media and featuring articles with titles like "9 Famous Movie Villains Who Were Right All Along" and "6 Insane Fan Theories That Actually Make Great Movies Better." The overall tone of John Dies At The End is consistent with Cracked's wise-cracking fanboy sensibilities.
For his part, if Coscarelli has any discomfort around these kids today with their insect gross-out videos and their "Why Everyone In The Star Wars Universe Is A Complete Dick" observational humor, he keeps it well hidden. As I noted in my review of the Phantasm series, Coscarelli's talent, like Quentin Tarantino's, is to invent and borrow with equal gusto, creating works that are at once familiar and wholly unique, like cinematic fusion cuisine.
And Coscarelli's films feel like dreams, where the subconscious synthesizes familiar ideas into new ones. What if the creepy funeral director turns out to be an alien who is creating a zombie Jawa army to act as slaves in an alternate dimension accessible only by tuning fork? Or what if an aging Elvis and an elderly black man who thinks he is... or may really be... John F. Kennedy joined forces to defend their nursing home against a mummy attack?
Like Coscarelli's previous films, Wong's story is filled with inventive combinations of the familiar and the absurd. The scene, for example, where John helps Dave escape from police custody using a cell phone that is actually a bratwurst feels like the kind of dream you might have if you fell asleep watching The Matrix after eating too much Hofbrau.
From the Fight Club-like deadpan narration to the William-Peter-Blatty-esque faux gangsta demon named "Shitload" ("because there are a shitload of us in here") to the Phantasm-inspired insects from the id, John Dies At The End is a carnival ride through the subconscious of the American horrorscape.
And as a bonus, John Dies At The End also manages to make an actual point about the relationship between free will, predetermination and identity. All in all, you could certainly have a worse night at the movies without looking too far.