I’ve seen John Dies at the End twice now, and I’ll be damned if I can figure anything substantive about it. I suspect that’s by design. This is one of those gleeful exercises like Buckaroo Banzai or Naked Lunch, where the deliberate weirdness becomes a part of the appeal. Director Don Coscarelli makes a perfect fit for such a project, having helmed the deliriously beautiful (and similarly out-there) Bubba Ho-Tep with the same confidence that he shows here. He needs every bit of it, because John Dies at the End threatens to go completely off the rails at every turn. If you’re the intended audience for this film, you’ll realize that that’s one of the selling points.
It owes a great deal to H.P. Lovecraft… though it plays more like Lovecraft’s slacker Gen X cousin most of the time. Or, more accurately, what a Lovecraft story would be like if featured the Dude from The Big Lebowski as the savior of humanity. John (Rob Mayes) and Dave (Chase Williamson) both come from the school of Dudeism: addled underachievers thrust into circumstances far beyond their control. They work as de facto supernatural investigators, a profession that gives them a healthy amount of paranoia and a knowledge of Things in the Shadows that might drive lesser men mad. They pick up their profession when a new street drug called soy sauce heralds an alien invasion – granting powerful psychic power as long as you don’t mind being possessed by alien spores. The pair find themselves inadvertently infected… or rather Dave does, because John as the title explains, has died. Or has he?
We’re not sure and frankly neither is the movie. “Plot” doesn’t really apply here, though Coscarelli tricks his narrative out with intricate care. Its shaggy dog qualities come with due deliberation, stuffed with riddle-laden dialogue and the kind of existential wit practiced by philosophy students with way too much time on their hands. We dive down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, as the heroes’ perception of reality shifts wildly from scene to scene and Coscerelli leaps back and forth in what for the sake of expediency we’ll call a timeline. Ostensibly, Dave is explaining everything after the fact to a skeptical journalist (Paul Giamatti) in a coffee shop, but that too proves to be more (or maybe less) than it seems.
And yet for all its outlandish twists and turns, the fundaments of this universe hold internal consistency. In addition to Lovecraft, it draws heavy inspiration from William S. Burroughs, whose Naked Lunch carries the same lunatic energy. We’re not always aware of where it’s going, but its freakalicious tone resolutely commands our attention. Coscarelli adds a huge helping of absurdity that should weed out those not in tune with its sensibilities. In order to take this ride, you have to see the humor in a malicious sentient mustache, or a confused evil spirit made of frozen meat. (I suspect an altered state of consciousness might help, though even that’s an at-your-own-risk equation.)
Humor may be the ultimate purpose of the exercise: a trip-laden goof-off designed to freak out the squares and make genre geeks cackle with glee. Certainly, it should provide plenty of internet flame bait (anyone who claims to really understand this movie is demonstrably full of shit), and multiple screenings only add to the intrigue. Some may grow weary of its attitude after a time, but those in the right mindset will find it as addicting as the black goo that drives its story.
Above all, it demonstrates one of the real strengths of genre filmmaking… especially low-budget genre filmmaking, scuttling below the eyeline of the big studios. It can explore new ideas, try new things and take off in totally unexpected directions. John Dies at the End is far from perfect, but it is alive with the possibilities of the medium. That’s all a cult film needs to prosper, and all this one needs to cheerfully escape business as usual.