Don Coscarelli is a cult director, responsible for movies as diverse as Phantasm, The Beastmaster, and Bubba Ho-Tep. Jason Pargin is a cult author, best known for his gonzo novel John Dies At The End (written under the pseudonym David Wong), which was originally serialized on the internet. These are two men with strong individual styles, which get mutually amplified in Coscarelli’s adaptation of John Dies At The End. Chase Williamson plays an aimless young man(also named David Wong), whose friend Rob Mayes dies, but keeps communicating from the beyond to tell Williamson all about a powerful drug called “soy sauce,” and the extra-dimensional visitors who are using it to infiltrate this plane of existence. Williamson tells his friend’s story to journalist Paul Giamatti, in a nesting narrative that allows Williamson to veer off and ruminate about the monsters and mysteries that dwell within shadows, visible only out of the corners of the eye. This is a willfully weird story, rendered by Coscarelli in a way that’s meant to appeal to people who are either chemically altered or sleep-deprived.
There are times when John Dies At The End tries too hard. Early in the film, right before Williamson and Mayes get into a fight with a beast made out of frozen cuts of meat, the doorknob to the basement they’re in transforms into a penis, and Mayes gasps, “That door cannot be opened!” It’s a funny joke, but one that reads better than it plays, which is true of a lot of the comedy in John Dies At The End. And as Williamson and Mayes start running across people who’ve become possessed—or who turn out to be manifestations of the heroes’ unconscious minds—the “anything goes” trippiness makes John Dies At The End harder to latch onto as a story. The flip, semi-clueless nature of the protagonists and the wild exaggerations of the villains make everything seem cartoony and insubstantial, like a Bill & Ted movie directed by Sam Raimi.
But John Dies At The End can be fun, too—like, well, a Bill & Ted movie directed by Sam Raimi. When Williamson is being attacked by a ghost-cop’s mustache, or when his handless girlfriend is opening a door to another world with her phantom limb, it’s hard not to get a little giddy at what Coscarelli is accomplishing with this low-budget, mostly live-action film. (There is one animated sequence. It’s the goriest part of the movie.) More than that, it’s good that Coscarelli embraces the meditative qualities of Wong’s book, by asking questions about whether identity is tied to image, and by pondering how intuition works. John Dies At The End may strain to live up to its midnight movie reputation, but then it’s not every B-horror picture that combines demonic creatures and ultra-violence with musings about what it means to be alive in a world that’s getting more unreal by the day.