This film screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
Watching John Dies at the End is, one assumes, not unlike being on the mysterious drug that fuels much of the film’s darkly comic, vaguely metaphysical plot: It’s an alienating experience that can feel right in the moment but that adds up to an empty and nonsensical journey. Written and directed by Don Coscarelli, and adapted from a novel originally serialized online, John Dies at the End plays a little like Tim and Eric’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with a barrage of non sequiturs, limp jokes, and absurdly bad special effects buttressing a story that increasingly mistakes delirium for enlightenment. My first thought was that Coscarelli, in bringing to the screen a novel with a small but loyal following, had tried to stay too true to the source material out of a fear of upsetting the book’s fans. Research proves this to be untrue. If anything, Coscarelli took willful strides away from the book, crafting a new and mostly independent plot for the film. The problem isn’t that there’s too much on screen; it’s that there’s too little. Rather than use the book’s interesting ideas and characters as a springboard into his own story, Coscarelli relies too much on the hope that the film’s vibe will carry it through. The script resolutely refuses to follow up on any of the themes or characters it introduces, and the experience is maddeningly forgettable. It’s a bad trip, and sobriety is a long time coming.
The prologue — which feels like the cold open for a fantastic TV series from an alternate universe — is the best part of the film, a witty mix of horror, humor, and tonal control. Narrated by the college-age-ish David Wong (Chase Williamson, who is resolutely Caucasian; I’ll explain later), the opening is a hilarious vignette about David’s repeated battles with monsters and other evil forces. In the process of chopping off a zombie’s head, he chips his ax head and has to get it replaced. Later, killing a demonic bug, he damages the handle, which is also subsequently replaced. Not long after, the undead man rises and shows up at David’s door, and when he sees David wielding the ax, yells, “That’s the ax that slayed me!” David’s question to the viewer: Is the monster correct? It’s a funny, weirdly pleasing little moment for a number of reasons. It reflects a genuine intellect as well as a willingness to play around with the rules of horror movies, and it’s also funny, punchy, and well-timed. It’s a great sequence, and it is so much more enjoyable and engaging than the film that follows it I can barely reconcile them.
The film is mostly told in flashback, using as a framing device an interview David is giving to a reporter (Paul Giamatti) at a seedy Chinese restaurant. This justifies David’s voice-over and the film’s commitment to his point of view, but the device becomes a hindrance when David’s narrative slides around in time so much that we start to lose track of the order of events. Coscarelli isn’t (yet) being playful with time, either; the film just feels hasty and unbalanced, and with no clear entry point, it’s that much more difficult to give yourself over. The jarring temporal transitions aren’t thematic, either; there’s no real way to argue they’re an aesthetic choice meant to reflect some kind of character-based confusion or dislocation. They’re just messy. Additionally, David explains to the reporter that he changed his last name to Wong so he’d be harder to find; he’s adopted, and presumably he prizes some level of anonymity. Yet the name change never actually makes sense in the film’s universe, and its brush-off is at once too much acknowledgment and not nearly enough. It’s representative of the imbalance and uncertainty that plagues the film as a whole.
The bulk of the story involves David and his best friend, John (Rob Mayes), who are low-level paranormal experts/technicians, like the Ghostbusters without any scientific gear. One night at a party, David meets a crazed Jamaican who puts John and, eventually, Dave in touch with a mysterious drug known only as “soy sauce.” The black liquid, injected via syringe into the blood, allows its users to read people’s thoughts and bounce around in time, along with some other fun side effects. John trips on the stuff so bad one night that he panics and calls Dave, who finds John delirious and complaining of having called many times despite Dave only receiving one call. As a result, Dave receives more calls from John throughout the film, all of them bleeding into Dave’s timeline from what we might as well call alternate temporal planes of existence.
The plot — and I am summarizing greatly here, pulling disparate threads together into something resembling a coherence the film sorely lacks — sees Dave trying to get to the root of the drug’s source and power, while also dealing with an impending threat of otherworldly invasion. I realize just typing that sentence that it’s a maddeningly vague description, but there’s honestly no other way to talk about it. Individual scenes or sequences hold together through sheer will, so it’s possible to watch the film and think (e.g.) “OK, now they have to escape the abandoned mall before the aliens arrive.” But pausing to try and remember why they went to the mall in the first place is like becoming Leonard Shelby: you can push all you want, but the memory won’t be there. The film exists in a kind of narrative vacuum.
The technical aspects of the execution don’t fare much better, either. The Tim and Eric parallel doesn’t just apply to the logic of the script: the effects are some of the cheapest and ugliest you’ll see in a movie outside the SyFy Channel. For most of the film, though, Coscarelli does great work with costumes and framing to convey a sense of otherworldliness or metaphysical change. But during the unintentionally anticlimactic confrontation scene that wraps the story up, John and Dave look cheaply pasted onto green-screened layouts that appear to have been rendered during a lunch break.
It’s possible that the book’s more ardent fans will take the film to heart. Presumably, it makes a nice companion piece to the literary version, and if you love the characters enough, maybe it’s fun enough to see them rendered in three dimensions than to ask them to do something interesting. But for everyone else, John Dies at the End is bound to be an off-putting and deadening experience, akin to listening to someone tell you about the craziest dream they ever had. For them, it was real. For you, it’s just a boring, secondhand story.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.