Review: John Dies at the End
PLOT: Two losers suddenly find themselves in the middle of an unexplainable supernatural conspiracy when they're given a powerful new drug called Soy Sauce, which gives the user the incredible ability to see the past, present and future
REVIEW: At first glance, JOHN DIES AT THE END may not seem like the typical Don Coscarelli project, but it turns out that the director best known for PHANTASM and BUBBA HO-TEP fits the quirky material like a glove. A movie replete with surreal visions, bizarre monsters, otherworldly plots and heroes who are barely capable of holding down jobs, JOHN DIES AT THE END is a refreshing venture outside of the real world into an exuberant, tongue-in-cheek fantasy best watched with an open mind.
But even seen with an open mind, JOHN DIES AT THE END will prove not to be for everyone. A flurry of crazed ideas that seem picked from a stoned conspiracy theorist (in actuality it's based on a book by David Wong, who may or may not be a stoned conspiracy theorist), the movie plops you down immediately into a story that is equals parts befuddling and fascinatingly deranged. Our guides through the tumult are a couple of slackers named Dave and John (Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes, respectively), who work as spiritualist exorcists in their go-nowhere town and handle the sight of a talking packaged-meat-monster with the same perplexed but restrained reaction that they greet everything else. Not much phases these two, but that changes when they encounter a new street drug called Soy Sauce, which is either the world's most powerful hallucinogenic or goop from outer space placed here to destroy, or possible enlighten, us. One drink of this stuff and you can tell the future, see into someone else's past and essentially learn the secrets of the universe.
As the title indicates, somewhat misleadingly, John dies - not at the end, but in the middle of the story. It's not a big deal though, because he's still able to hang out with Dave and chat via "psychic vibrations." (He can turn a bratwurst into a telephone, obviously.) Their mission is to stop what appears to be an alien takeover of the planet, but since strange events happen with such forceful regularity, it's difficult for them - and us - to tell for sure. All that's clear is that they had better be up to the challenge of saving the world, which should be no problem considering their backup comes in the form of a dog who can drive and a cocky popular illusionist named Dr. Marconi (Clancy Brown).
The plot, as complicated and filled with dizzying existential and philosophical conundrums as it is, is not so important as the manic fervor with which it's told. I have not read Wong's book (and I'm now unsure whether or not my brain could handle it), but Coscarelli's adaptation is buoyed by the enthusiasm and dedication to madcap horror-comedy with which his previous films were made. The director relishes a showdown between unholy monstrosities and average schmucks (see: Reggie, the hero of the PHANTASM movies), and JOHN DIES AT THE END has a bevy of grotesque and giddily odd creatures for our protagonists to encounter (a mustache the flies off a man's face, a tentacled, subterranean beast, and that wonderful frozen meat-demon). Coscarelli never once appears to care if you're with him on this odyssey or not; he knows that you'll count yourself in or out within the first five minutes, and if you're in, it's up to you to handle everything he throws at you.
The cast of the film is well-assembled. Williamson and Hayes are perfectly believable twentysomething guys who handle an impending apocalypse with natural "oh shit, dude" affability. Coscarelli has also planted in several likable character actors, including Brown, Doug Jones, Glynn Turman and a very game Paul Giamatti, playing a reporter who is listening to Dave's account of the events and ultimately finds himself tangled up in them. Without performers willing to throw themselves headfirst into this fantastical insane asylum of a movie, it would falter and perish, but thankfully the whole gang is up for it.
I can't tell you if I even understood JOHN DIES AT THE END; it's the kind of movie you might have to see more than once to fully make sense of, and sometimes there's the creeping feeling that you're just being f*cked with, that there's no point and it's just one big shaggy dog joke. But the gonzo fun being had by the film's creators is infectious if you're willing to take what they're handing you and accept that it won't hurt your brain too much.