Part inter-dimensional science fiction, part absurdist comedy, and part campy horror flick, John Dies at the End is a deliciously off-kilter adventure that provides thrills and laughs aplenty. This is a film for people who thought Looper was too boring, Army of Darkness too serious, and Inception too witless. Perhaps most importantly, it ensures that you will never think of soy sauce the same way ever again.
Adapted by Don Coscarelli from David Wong’s novel of the same name, the film tells the kind of story one would expect from the director of Bubba Ho-Tep and the editor of Cracked.com. Two college drop-outs, John (Rob Mayes) and David (Chase Williamson) find themselves drifting across time and space after taking a mind-bending drug known as “soy sauce” –– except the horrors they see are not hallucinations. They uncover a rapidly escalating invasion from another dimension as monsters manifest, demon spirits possess undead flesh, and an unknown, shadowy terror takes over human bodies by consuming them from the inside. It’s up to them to save the world, with baseball bats wrapped in the pages of the Old Testament and paintball guns that have been jury-rigged into flamethrowers. The film also features Paul Giamatti turning in another dependably solid performance as Arnie, a journalist seeking to uncover The Truth.
This is one of those movies that is brilliantly stupid, like a Monty Python film for the modern era. Its plot-twisting cleverness is matched only by its gleeful imbecility. This is a film in which a dog drives a car, a hot dog gets used as a cell phone, and a demonic, hive-minded body-snatcher is forced to speak in the god-awful gangsta slang of its white, red-headed host. This movie is so far from serious that it’s impossible to wipe the grin off your face, even during scenes of grotesque mutilation and dismemberment.
Yet, somehow, amidst all the absurdity, there’s an existential horror that’s surprising in its clear articulation. Interestingly, the film does not use its paranormal extravagances to set this theme. Rather, it prefaces the story with a clever anecdote about an axe that David keeps breaking each time he kills the same perpetually reanimating corpse. He breaks the blade and the handle on separate occasions, and when he faces his stubborn nemesis for the third time, the zombie (now equipped with a different head) sees the twice-repaired axe and exclaims, “That’s the axe that killed me!” David, narrating, asks the audience: “Was he right?”
It’s a question as bafflingly profound as it is hilariously pointless. The characters continue to grapple with the inadequacy of language to describe a universe they cannot fully comprehend, though ultimately this rabbit hole quietly takes a backseat to the raucous hijinks and high-flying lunacy that makes this film so endearing. All philosophical inquiries are delivered as jokes, though never descending to the point where it scorns such head scratchers. In the same way it comforts the audience by presenting unsettling questions as punchlines, it delivers a heaping pile of gore on a platter of irreverent humor. It’s difficult to tell if this was the point, but it certainly raises the interesting possibility that humans can laugh at anything.
The film is certainly refreshing. Not only has it been some time since a kooky, horror-based comedy has graced the silver screen, but its originality of spirit makes an immediate impression. The film successfully stands apart from famous predecessors like Evil Dead 2 and Shaun of the Dead with a personality all of its own. And like those films, John Dies at the End has a much broader appeal than the niche fan base that craves the weird and bloody. Even viewers who generally avoid the absurd and irreverent stand a good chance of walking away from this film with a grin on their faces, even if they temper those grins with a bemused shake of the head.