Some films can get away with having a shoestring plot that doesn’t really get anywhere. “John Dies at the End” is not one of those films. It’s the kind of film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, it wants to be an abstract, surrealist work that is strung together with bizarre imagery leading it along randomly, while on the other it wants to put together a narrative for all of the wackiness that it entails. However, when there is an attempt made to squeeze in a hastily-written invasion plot at the end, it comes off as a pretty clear sign that this brave venture into the realm of surrealism wasn’t going well, leading writer/director Don Coscarelli to try to bring the film together at the last minute. Unfortunately for him, the result is a bit of a mess.
Told to us mainly in flashbacks, the plot, such as it is, revolves around Dave (Chase Williamson), who is telling his story to a journalist, Arnie (Paul Giamatti). Dave’s friend, John (Rob Mayes), calls him one night, something he usually does when he wants to hang out. However, this time John is stressed out over a drug he has taken from a party the two recently attended. The drug, known as “Soy Sauce,” gives him special abilities, such as being able to see strange creatures and communicate telepathically with Dave once he accidentally takes some of the drug. The “Soy Sauce” ends up being responsible for multiple deaths and disappearances, which causes a detective (Glynn Turman) to start investigating. As the mystery surrounding the drug continues, Dave and John discover a much bigger plot that could very well make them the world’s only hope for survival.
If that plot didn’t seem to make much sense to you, it’s not your fault. This is the kind of movie where the plot isn’t laid out very well, nor does it seem like there was much thought put into it. As I mentioned up top, the film starts off as a kind of surrealist experiment that incorporates some fascinating imagery resulting from the drug taken by the main characters. It causes them to be able to see things that others can’t, such as bizarre slug and spider creatures, and eventually much smaller bugs that inhabit human bodies.
Aside from that, the film also has a lot of comedic imagery, such as a demon manifestation that’s made of meat, a character using a bratwurst as a telephone, and a dog driving a car. Now I know making a purely surreal movie is not an easy task, and trying to do so with any kind of logical plot is almost entirely impossible, but what makes “John Dies at the End” such a frustrating experience is that Coscarelli tries to throw in the main plot in the last 20 minutes or so.
I’m not saying it would have worked a lot better, but it probably would have been a more satisfying experience if he had decided to go one way or the other, i.e. go for a completely surreal experience with minimal plot or try to have an interesting plot during the entire experience instead of throwing it in at the very end in a desperate attempt to bring the film together. To be fair though, the film is based on a book, so it’s not necessarily Coscarelli’s fault. It could have been a simple case of the book being written in this exact fashion.
You may recognize Coscarelli’s name. He’s the same man who brought us the dreadful “Phantasm” series, while others may remember him better as the man behind “Bubba Ho-Tep.” As far as its place in his filmography, this is better than most of his other films that I’ve seen, but he still has difficulty in coming up with an engaging story. It stands to reason that he would be attracted to something with a plot that’s as fragmented and “out there” as this one is.
However, it’s also one of his more daring films. If I was told the plot of this book, I would have simply called it a lost cause for a film, but as far as getting the imagery to the screen, he does a decent job. It’s everything else that he seems to have difficulty with, mainly the story and characters. It’s such a shame too, because there’s a lot of interesting material here to work with. Aside from the drug allowing them to see creatures and communicate with each other, it also gives them the ability to read people’s thoughts and more. Sadly, this is a concept in the film that is not explored very much beyond using it to impress people.
However daring it may be, unfortunately it never comes together into a cohesive whole, though perhaps it’s never really meant to. What could have just been a bizarre visual feast ends up getting distracted with a muddled plot that merely sells out in the end. It could simply be that it was a lost cause or perhaps Coscarelli wasn’t the right choice to attempt to bring the material to life. He certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice. Either way, “John Dies at the End” is an experiment that just didn’t work. 2/4 stars.
Starts tomorrow in limited release. Also available on Video On Demand.
Now playing in theaters: Zero Dark Thirty, Promised Land, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, This is 40, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Argo