‘John Dies at the End’ Review
You don't have to be on drugs to enjoy 'John Dies at the End' -- I wasn't and I did -- but it certainly wouldn't hurt. Its frenzied, cockeyed logic, brain-twisting philosophical discussions, and bargain basement psychedelic special effects would all look better high. 'John Dies at the End' is kind of like 'Ghostbusters' if 'Ghostbusters' was about a pair of slackers who take weird drugs to see and kill ghosts rather than a bunch of Columbia University scientists. Through their extensive use of a mysterious and possibly sentient substance known as "Soy Sauce," Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) are able to see into the future, the past, and alternate universes, and even to commune with the dead. They occasionally save the world, pharmacological stupors permitting.
The film comes from director Don Coscarelli, who specializes in funky cult horror like 'Phantasm' and 'Bubba Ho-Tep;' once again, he's made a movie that plays better the later you watch it. Like a lot of Coscarelli's previous works, 'John Dies at the End' is bursting with elaborate mythology, creatures, and scares -- plus a healthy dose of wry humor (like a lot of Coscarelli's previous works, it's not exactly bursting in the budget area, and some of the special effects are laughably terrible). The whole thing is structured as a series of hazy stories told by Dave to journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti). Dave wants to convince Arnie to write an article about his adventures, revealing the times that he and John have defended our universe from extradimensional interlopers, but Arnie is skeptical. And with good reason -- Dave looks and sounds like he's high as a kite. And with good reason -- Dave is as high as a kite.
This Soy Sauce is some seriously funky stuff: this inky black substance that can transform from pill to little flying insect that forces its way into your body. It chooses you, we're told, and if it can't use you, it kills you -- although that, like much of everything else we're seen and told in 'John Dies at the End,' should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Coscarelli uses Soy Sauce to a variety of clever effects -- staging chase and action scenes and even bizarre dialogue exchanges that are refracted through the lens of this magical goo. I'm particularly partial to the scene where Dave, tripping on The Sauce, realizes he no longer needs his cell phone to carry on phone conversations with John by buying a bratwurst from a hot dog vendor and holding it up to his ear.
Though there are some well-known character actors in supporting roles -- Giamatti most prominently, along with Clancy Brown as a television psychic and Glynn Turman as a police detective -- the film is anchored by Williamson and Mayes, relative unknowns who deserve to ride 'John' to some higher profile work. They nail just the right vibe in their dope-fueled friendship, and make likable unlikely heroes. The film feels like the origin story of a grand series of John and Dave adventures, and though I doubt we'll ever get to see them, I'd be excited to watch them if we did.
'John Dies at the End' is earnestly ironic and seriously goofy. It's funny and a little spooky and entirely trippy. It does butt up against the limits of its low budget a bit too prominently at times -- and particularly during its big universe-hopping finale -- but by the end, you'll feel disorientation, elation, and euphoria -- all key signs of any good drug binge.
'John Dies at the End' is currently available on VOD and opens in select theaters on January 25.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’