You would think that with a title like “John Dies at the End” that you would know everything there is to know about Don Coscarelli’s film. Actually dying is really the least disturbing thing that happens to John and everyone he meets throughout this drug-fuelled trip down the rabbit hole by way of Toon Town, which would puzzle even Fox Mulder from The X-Files. What else can you expect from the guy who brought you Bubba Ho-Tep, in which an elderly Elvis fights a mummy sucking the souls of the residents of a retirement home?
Another way in which the title is misleading is that this is not really John’s story. The story’s narrator is David Wong (Chase Williamson), a young man who is meeting journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) at a Chinese restaurant. Arnie quickly deduces David is not Chinese despite his last name and choice of meeting place and when he says his mother was into vampirism, Arnie realizes she was simply bipolar. Despite the layers of lies, David says he only wants to tell the truth about how he and his friend John (Rob Mayes) became spiritualist exorcists.
With a great deal of scepticism, Arnie listens to a flashback that begins at a high school party where David met a Jamaican man with supposedly psychic powers. Later that night David gets a panicked phone call from John saying monsters are attacking him in his room. Finding no monsters, Dave assumes John is high on drugs and takes him to a diner. There John admits the Jamaican did give him a new drug called “soy sauce,” which has the power to highlight your senses and allow you to remember things that haven’t happened yet. It is then that David’s phone rings and at the other John is taking to him…while John is sitting right in front of him with no phone anywhere near him.
It gets much, much weirder. After accidentally injecting himself with John’s remaining soy sauce, David is taken to a police station by Detective Appleton (Glynn Turman) who tells him most of the people from the party are dead from a drug overdose. Yet David is somehow immune to the soy sauce’s deadly effects and develops a psychic link with John, who even though this is now just the middle of the story, is now reportedly dead. Using a hot-dog as a phone, David follows John’s instruction to solve the mystery of the soy sauce.
From there David goes on a quest involving alternate dimensions, a bizarre cult filled with topless participants, and quite possibly the end of the world. Along the way David and is kidnapped by a man he shot in the head, thrown into a liquor truck, and driven to an abandoned mall nicknamed the mall of the dead. Oh, and somewhere along the line he joins forces with an infomercial psychic called Dr. Albert Marconi played by Clancy Brown. Doug Jones also shows up with a weird cockroach. As one character says, if Franz Kafka were here, his head would explode.
This film is totally bonkers. Between the stop-motion animation, the drug trips, the character actors, the cartoon in which giant spiders eat people, and the meat monster, this has cult classic written all over it. The plot may go off the rails by the third act, but it is definitely worth watching just to see where the wagons will land. It is not for everyone, but if you are a fan of Coscarelli’s work you will feel right at home.
(“John Dies at the End” is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray.)