John Dies at the End
I could say that John Dies at the End comes off as a sort of stylistic fan-fiction, imitating a certain subgenre rather than a particular collection of characters and settings. It would be true — the story is haphazardly, garishly, and amateurishly constructed — but it would be a disservice. For all its unpolished inelegance, it captures what so much fan-fiction misses: the fun. The script — based on the original novel by Cracked editor “David Wong” (Jason Pargin) — and adapted by director Don Coscarelli is no match for the likes of thought-provoking psychedelia like Naked Lunch or Videodrome, but these films are clear inspirations. And, with Coscarelli to render the story through his own dry humor, we get a bizarrely anarchic romp through a hilarious nightmare.
In the story, David Wong (Chase Williamson) and his friend John Cheese (Rob Mayes) are a team of paranormal investigators — think Ghostbusters crossed with Dante and Randall from Clerks — after coming into contact with a weird black hallucinogen referred to as “soy sauce” by a psychic rasta (Tai Bennett). What we see us basically their origin story and first big case, as David relates it to an incredulous reporter (Paul Giamatti) in a Chinese restaurant that seems to operate like a late-night diner in a noir film.
John is the more reckless of the pair, and when he starts freaking out after taking the soy sauce he makes a bunch of calls to David, all of which arrive at different times. David tries to get John some help, but accidentally gets dosed himself and starts hallucinating a gaunt figure in his car (Doug Jones) and an alien worm thing. Then they get picked up by a police detective (Glynn Turman) investigating the fact that everyone else who took the soy sauce with John the previous night is dead. And then it turns out that one of them (Jonny Weston) is not in fact dead but has been taken over by some alien entity trying to colonize Earth, and has kidnapped John, an Asian kid (Jimmy Wong), and a girl with one hand (Fabianne Therese) to help.
And somehow it gets weirder after that. Honestly, I’m not even sure it’s possible to make any coherent sense of all the threads that are introduced, often out of nowhere and just as often left hanging. I haven’t even mentioned the Las Vegas mentalist “Dr.” Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), whose character is almost completely undeveloped, at least in this installment. And now I have mentioned him, and it still doesn’t make any more sense.
But all this nonsense matters a lot less than it normally would. As awkward and ungainly as the story gets, each part of it — yes, even the perplexing and seemingly unrelated adaptation of the Ship of Theseus that kicks the whole thing off — is raucously fun. Coscarelli is most recently best known for Bubba Ho-Tep, which features famous chin Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis Presley who, along with Ossie Davis as a dyed-black and unassassinated John F. Kennedy, defends a nursing home from an ancient Egyptian mummy. John Dies at the End is, in a way, less preposterous than that movie, but it shares its sense of playful energy as it dives through one idea after another with reckless abandon and unmitigated glee.
A lot of the artifice that’s meant to suggest “trippy” states — the changes in cinematography, and the way things jump around in time — are less than effective, but there is one thing that this story shares with a drug experience: you’ll get through it easier if you learn to just roll with it, accept that what’s happening is happening, and don’t make too big a deal out of it. Relax, and enjoy the ride.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.