The surreal John Dies at the End kind of defies categorization. It presents sort of a Naked Lunch for the teen set. It’s an outré, hallucinogenic head trip of a movie that feels a little like a speed freak version of David Lynch at his most obtuse. What’s missing is the gravitas of Lynch or Cronenberg at their best. There’s nothing in writer-director Don Coscarelli’s vision of nightmarish absurdity to stick in viewer’s minds after the credits roll. Maybe that was the point. Based on David Wong’s novel of the same name (which I haven’t read), John Dies at the End is unpredictable, seemingly for the sheer purpose of being unpredictable. Individual scenes present intrigue and humor, but they add up to something frustratingly incomplete and vapid.
The plot is convoluted and nearly incomprehensible to the point where any attempt at meaningful summary would likely prove fruitless. The narrative jumps around chronologically, with a deliberately scrambled narrative that does a good job of camouflaging how empty the actual story is. We’ve all had those elaborate dreams that we can’t wait to tell someone about, but quickly discover that all the details have evaporated once we’re fully awake. That’s how I felt about the plot, which centers on David’s (Chase Williamson) experiences with a new psychotropic drug known on the streets as “soy sauce.”
David meets with an understandably skeptical writer, Arnie (Paul Giamatti), with whom he shares these experiences. He traces his introduction to the drug back to a Jamaican party-goer who calls himself Robert Marley (Tai Bennett). The drug opens the user’s mind to an unprecedented degree, including the ability to read minds, see the future, commune with the dead, and a multitude of other fantastical powers. So the film flicks back and forth between David and Arnie’s restaurant meeting and the various pieces to the puzzle of how David’s musician friend John (Rob Mayes) “dies” after using the mind-altering substance. Along the way there are encounters with demons, aliens, spider monsters, and a self-aware dog named Bark Lee.
The DVD comes loaded with quite a few extras. Director Coscarelli, producer Brad Baruh, and actors Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes sit for a lively commentary track. There are also deleted scenes, a short “making of,” and featurettes covering the film’s special effects and casting sessions. A Fangoria interview with co-star Paul Giamatti is one of the better inclusions, as he does a great job conveying his enthusiasm for this film. I wish I could share it. If you really dig the movie, these bonuses will likely be seen as welcome inclusions.
I don’t really mean this as a diss against Coscarelli’s film, but John Dies at the End is totally the kind of movie I would’ve been screaming about from the rooftops had I seen it in high school. There were movies like Adam Rifkin’s The Dark Backward that I kind of knew weren’t really all that good, but they were just so weird I had to talk about them to anyone who would listen. It felt kind of cool to be in a little unofficial club with others who had seen it. As I got older, the appeal of such cult films—rich in bizarre minutiae, short on substance—faded. John Dies at the End is undoubtedly creative and if anyone gets jazzed up about it, more power to them. To me it felt seriously dispassionate, as if messing with people’s minds was the filmmakers’ sole intent, rather than leaving any kind of lasting impression. Maybe I just didn’t “get it,” in which case I’m totally fine with that.