As much as I love cinema, it’s rare that I can say I smiled the whole time while watching a movie. It’s happened, mind you, such as when I saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), but rarely does a film sustain my enthusiasm for two hours straight with its delightful characters, clever twists, and thought-provoking concepts. Based on the novel by David Wong and produced entirely outside the studio system, John Dies at the End does exactly that, which makes you wonder what writer-director Don Coscarelli could achieve with a full-blown Hollywood budget.
In light of our current studio system, I suspect the answer might be “less”, so here are some infinitely more interesting questions to ponder. Why is it that, when we hear a word for the first time, we invariably hear it again within the next twenty-four hours? Why do we sometimes see a single shoe by the side of the road? When we dream of things like a significant other strapping dynamite to his or her chest and, just as our loved one ignites, we wake up to realise the sound of the explosion was merely that of the thunder outside, how did our mind know in advance Mother Nature would tap at our window?
Such inquiries drive the plot of John Dies at the End as recounted by Dave Wong (Chase Williamson) himself to an understandably incredulous reporter (Paul Giamatti). Adapting only the first third of the book, his account tells of an encounter with a sentient narcotic called the soya sauce, which enables its users to see the invisible, explain the unexplainable, and travel through time. The latter ability comes in handy when his best friend John (Rob Mayes) dies in the middle but continues to instruct Dave on how to save the world from a parasitic invader.
Both in style and content, John Dies at the End revels in its absurdity, countering every instance of coherence with far-out concepts that might just blow your mind if you don’t keep it wide open. Take, for example, the opening sequence, which poses an age-old philosophical question but with zombies and decapitations, or the scene in which John invites Dave to put his ear to a hot dog for further exposition, or the bit when a tragic massacre is suddenly depicted in cartoon form. The list goes on and on.
Grounding all this madness are the unwaveringly deadpan performances by Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes, who, despite John Dies at the End being their first feature-length production, display the sort of maturity one would only expect from veteran thespians. Consider the way Williamson straddles the line between numbing confusion and quiet reflection, keeping himself relatable to bemused viewers all the while nudging their suspension of disbelief. By the same token, I love how Maye makes it clear, with just his posture and delivery, that John’s gung-ho acceptance of the supernatural stems from a pathological sense of humility rather than jock stupidity.
It helps as well that Coscarelli, who cut his teeth with the Phantasm series, has a genuine knack for stories involving multiple layers of reality. At no point during John Dies at the End did I ever feel lost or jerked around. In fact, the movie proves remarkably consistent in its surrealist logic, keeping us a single step behind (no more, no less) as each absurdity engenders another. By the time the giant extra-dimensional organic computer shows up, we find ourselves less concerned with the plausibility of it all than with the final step of our heroes’ master plan.
What’s more, the film makes a clear statement about consumerism and our subsequent existential angst, tying the villain’s origin to the industrial revolution and its modus operandi to the way we sacrifice our lives to an ungrateful system. Unlike, say, the closing shot of Inception, the demented flights of fancy presented here aren’t designed to provoke random deep thoughts but to inspire protest against the accepted reality. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the sheer inventiveness of John Dies at the End had me smiling throughout its runtime. The truth is I’m still grinning.