Directed by: Don Coscarelli.
Written by: Don Coscarelli based on the story by David Wong.
Starring:: Chase Williamson (Dave), Rob Mayes (John), Paul Giamatti (Arnie Blondestone), Clancy Brown (Dr. Albert Marconi), Glynn Turman (Detective), Doug Jones (Roger North), Daniel Roebuck (Largeman), Fabianne Therese (Amy), Jonny Weston (Justin White), Jimmy Wong (Fred Chu), Tai Bennett (Robert Marley), Allison Weissman (Shelly).
John Dies at the End is certainly one of the strangest films you will see this year – that is both the reason to see it, and also the reason it ultimately doesn’t add up to very much. The film was directed by Don Coscarelli, whose last film was Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), a cult hit that had Bruce Campbell playing Elvis and Ossie Davis playing JFK (!), neither of whom apparently died, now living in an old folks home and having to fight off a mummy. That film sustained its weirdness throughout, and was an amusing diversion. As John Dies at the End moves along, you get the feeling that it’s just being weird for the sake of being weird. The film is never boring, but it’s never all that interesting either.
The film stars Chase Williamson as David and using the framing device of Wong telling his story to reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) in a Chinese restaurant. The story starts at a kegger, where David meets the amputee Amy (Fabianne Therese) and a mystical Jamaican named Robert Marley. While David leaves early, he gets a call late that night from his friend John (Rob Mayes), who tells him to come over to his apartment right away. Later, when David is talking to John, he receives another phone call from John, telling him whatever he does, do not come over to his apartment. This is just the beginning of the weirdness.
It seems there is a new drug – nicknamed Soy Sauce – which allows those who take it to see an alternate universe full of monsters and demons and other crazy things – that is if it doesn’t kill you, which it seems to do to most who take it. John has already taken the drug, and soon Dave will too, and they will become, of course, humanity’s last hope for survival against this alternate universe. I could continue to describe the plot, but then we’d be here all day, because it takes such crazy, out of nowhere left turns that make little sense, but than that is kind of the movie’s charm.
I don’t really know how to describe John Dies at the End. Clearly the movie is going for some kind of comic version of Naked Lunch, or perhaps the same sort of strange chaos that Richard Kelly got to in Southland Tales (a movie far better than its reputation suggests). And yet, I think those movies came together in some meaningful way at the end. In John Dies at the End all we have is that weirdness.
Some of it is undeniably entertaining weirdness. Paul Giamatti is having a blast as Arnie, and the supporting cast includes other nice turns by Clancy Brown as a TV psychic, Glynn Turman as a Detective and the always strange Doug Jones. The film has some great one liners too (“Apparently this is an Eyes Wide Shut universe”). But after a while, I got bored by the weirdness. I don’t mind weird, but I do mind incoherence, and this movie more than flirts with that throughout its running time.
I’m sure John Dies at the End which eventually find its cult audience – movies like this always seem to at some point. But most movie audiences will be perplexed by the film. I suppose you can look at that as a good thing – as the film’s defenders certainly do – but for me, the film just never comes together.