John Dies at the End is a film that tries hard, and succeeds in being weird above all else. It’s a hard film to describe, much less give a plot summary of, as it juggles drugs, the paranormal, and alternate dimensions. And stylistically, it feels like a cross between peak John Carpenter and early Sam Raimi. JDATE aims squarely for cult, and gets there; but just being cult doesn’t make a movie good.
The film follows David Wong (the pen-name of the author who wrote the book this film as an adaptation of) as he recounts the film to a journalist looking to get the other side of a story. Wong tells about his adventure into the other-worldly, of both the paranormal and science-fiction variety, and how it began with a mysterious drug called “soy sauce” that makes its users remember the future and see things that may or may not be real. It’s a story that at points involves monsters made from frozen meat, Wong’s friend John possessing a dog, getting attacked by a fake policeman’s mustache, and demons and supercomputers from other dimensions. It doesn’t make sense written down and it barely makes sense in the film. It’s a plot with so many points that from above it would look like someone tried to print a Jackson Pollock on a broken dot-matrix printer. Further complicating the plot is a mythology that asks the viewer to think like they’re either high or half-asleep to fully grasp, and a freshman understanding of ontology. Even within the film’s framing device, Wong jumps between the past, present, and future, so determining when each of the film’s anecdotes is supposed to take place always takes a second or two that the film barely gives the audience before rushing right along. John Dies at the End is actually very much like a dream, in that you’re expected to take everything it shows you for granted in order for any of it to make enough sense to move on to the next thing.
And this all falls right in line with a whole genre of weird cult film that I normally enjoy whole-heartedly in stuff like the Hellraiser series, The Evil Dead series, and Prince of Darkness. And this film has the plot, the humor, and even the practical effects. But it’s the performances in this that really kill the mood for me. Chase Williamson plays David, the lead, as though he’s half asleep the entire time with an emotional range that goes from deadpan all the way to dull surprise. And this is very personal, but it doesn’t help that he’s so generically network-TV good-looking that every attempt at snark makes him more punchable than likable. Even Clancy Brown, who’s an actor I always love seeing, feels weighed down in his performance here by a weird implacably Eastern-European accent that he only seems to bother with every other line.
I have no doubt that there are young film nerds who will see this film and make it into a staple of their film palette. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t. For all of its complexities and asks of the audience, it really isn’t half bad. And more importantly, it’s one of the most recent examples of horror-comedy that embraces being weird and out-there purely for weird and out-there’s sake. And depending on where and when you find yourself, weird and novel is more important that being good, and that’s not bad.