In thirty year’s time, “John Dies at the End” could conceivably be mentioned in the same sentence as “Forbidden Zone” or “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension,” films that have gained cult followings primarily for their unyielding strangeness. I haven’t the slightest clue what this movie is about. All I know is that it’s resolutely determined to be a head trip, and as such, it succeeds in tremendous fashion. That doesn’t necessarily mean I enjoyed the experience, which I can only guess is something like being high. It only means that recognized what it set out to do. At least, I [think] I recognized it. There are times when I know exactly how to process a film. At other times, I wouldn’t know where to begin, nor would I be able to determine whether or not such a thing is possible. Can you guess which category this movie falls into? Don’t think about it too hard.
How do I even begin to describe the plot, assuming that such a word even applies in this case? The central character is David Wong (Chase Williamson), which also happens to be the pseudonym under which author Jason Pargin wrote the novel the film is based on. Since it’s obvious that David is not Asian, his surname is explained as a way to make himself less easy to contact. Anyway, the film unfolds largely as a series of extended flashback sequences, David telling his story to a journalist named Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) while seated in a virtually abandoned Chinese restaurant. Much of the action takes place two years earlier, at which point David had just finished high school. The story proper begins with David at a lakeside party, where his best friend, John (Rob Mayes), performs a rock gig. David has an encounter with a Jamaican named, I kid you not, Robert Marley (Tai Bennett), who’s somehow able to describe in detail the dream David had the previous night.
David is soon given a sidekick in the form of a dog named Bark Lee, who had bitten Robert Marley earlier that night. The dog, it’s quickly revealed, belongs to an amputee named Amy (Fabianne Therese), whose left hand is made of plastic. Later on, David receives a desperate phone call from John, now a delusional raving maniac. Upon going to John’s apartment, David finds a syringe filled with a black liquid referred to colloquially as “soy sauce”; it’s eventually explained that it was supplied to John by Robert Marley, and that, by injecting it, John is able to look into the future and parallel universes. Things get even stranger when David receives calls from John, which isn’t possible given the fact that John is physically in the room with David and is clearly not using a phone. This is the point at which John apologizes to David for everything that’s going to happen.
In due time, David will accidentally inject himself with the “soy sauce” and begins to see things that weren’t there previously. He also gains bizarre mental abilities, such as being able to count the exact number of rice grains on a plate of Chinese food and know exactly when and where it was grown. While driving, an inter-dimensional being (Doug Jones) suddenly materializes in the back seat, explains that he has been studying humanity for quite some time, and promptly tries to attach a giant slug creature to David’s chest. The being disappears. Both David and an unconscious John are then apprehended by the police for questioning regarding the deaths of several people who were at the party the previous night. One of the cops is Detective Appleton (Glynn Turman), whose statements David can predict before they’re actually said. Appleton leaves the room and returns with the news that John is dead. Nevertheless, John is able to call David on his cell phone – and, eventually, through a street cart hot dog.
And it just sort of keeps going like this. Demonic possession works its way into the plot, albeit not in any usual or understandable way. We think Appleton has a bigger role to play than it might initially seem, although his exit from the story is just as abrupt as his entrance. There will finally come the climactic moment when David and John cross over into a parallel universe, where they encounter both a topless church congregation wearing masks and a gelatinous god entity with tentacles and a gigantic eye. What any of this means, I have absolutely no idea. The film seems intentionally designed to be as surreal and thematically impenetrable as possible. The plot is designed not as a cohesive narrative but rather as a random sequence of events that can go anywhere or nowhere in particular. It’s cinematic nonsense. That’s the appeal, I guess. Too bad so few audiences are likely to find it appealing.
Much of the film plays like an absurdist comedy, writer/director Don Coscarelli infusing the screenplay with a dark sense of humor that occasionally cuts through the confusion. Sometimes, it plays like a horror movie, with scenes of gross-out gore that’s just as ridiculous as it is cringe inducing. Most of the time, though, it’s is just plain bizarre. Consider a sequence in which a woman’s body explodes into a tangle of snakes; immediately afterwards, cuts of meat from a nearby freezer come together like an organic Transformers robot and form a walking, talking monster. Sausages serve as fingers, full rib racks turn into a torso, and a frozen turkey becomes the head. So far as I can tell, there’s no possible way to logically analyze “John Dies at the End.” I suppose there’s something to be said for that, although I don’t what that something is.