A deadpan response to a world gone mad, a sustained look at life through LSD goggles, an elliptical litany of the countless apocalypses that could derail the planet's workings at any moment — that's the easiest way to sum up the instant cult object that is John Dies at the End. It takes the anything-can-happen possibilities you expect from summer superhero tentpole films, but it anchors them in a world that essentially operates under the rule of supernatural encounter established in Beetlejuice: The fantastic is always around us — but most people, too busy with jobs and obligations, just don't notice.
Not so our heroes, though they certainly provide a necessary service. (Across several dimensions, even.) David Wong (Chase Williamson) and his buddy John (Ryan Mayes) lead interesting lives, if interesting is the word for guys who deal with extraordinary weirdness every day. Ghosts, demons, monsters, malevolent intelligences, ambulatory meat — they've seen it all, and in between beers, grungy dining and the occasional exorcism, they're trying to lead normal lives of leisure and purpose. But thanks to an extradimensional drug/organism dubbed "soy sauce," their perception is about to get kicked several levels beyond what our puny mammal brains can comprehend.
The two moments that open John Dies at the End may be the strongest sell I've ever seen a movie give. They manage to set up its cinematic universe perfectly, establish its sense of humor so viewers can acclimate themselves, and ask a provocative question about perception and the way the universe works that provides the foundation for the entire film. It takes the expanding circles of a chthonic conspiracy and grounds them in a series of if/then moments that are just relatable enough to cushion the progressively weirder places we are being taken.
In large part, that's because the director is Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep), no stranger to mapping out the backroads of horror, dark fantasy and adventure. Adapting the pseudonymous novel by Jason Pargin, he taps into something vibrant, fun, twisted and refreshingly gory in the idea of two unfazed bros navigating vortices of otherworldly terror. John Dies at the End has a techno-Lovecraftian sense of horror, and yet it incorporates the "lonely men against the world" subtext of film noir into a world of hipsters and bonfire bands and dead malls, where post-racial misapprehension serves as a sign of evolution rather than a tragic reminder of how we fall short.
It's a good blend of material, and John Dies at the End stands tall where other attempts to bridge these worlds often collapse — even getting some satirical mileage from its druggy discombobulation. Given how pharmacized we are as a nation (see also the first hour of Side Effects), the film's attitudes toward the mystical "soy sauce" seem appropriately ambivalent. Remember the bush-weevil test from Flash Gordon? The drug's fascinating side effects run in that vein, writ large and Borgesian. If you're worthy, your consciousness expands beyond the limits of what is known. If not, well, your eyes explode — if you're lucky. Now there's a late-night pharmaceutical ad I'd like to see.
The two leads are quite charming together, with a slashy vibe and a postmodern sense of camaraderie. There's a bit of Shaun of the Dead in John and Dave's friendship, but this film isn't interested in the played-out concept of a dude having to decide between his buddy and a girlfriend who wants him to grow up. The movie's world doesn't pay out all those dividends being a respectable adult is supposed to yield, and so our heroes must live on their own terms. Maybe it does take a monstrous, oozing threat to all that exists to help a person find his true purpose.
Fans of TV's Supernatural should flock to this. In fact, take that show's Winchester brothers and mix in some Bill & Ted (both its slacker vibe and its handiness with multiverse sci-fi) and you've got an exceptional starting point. That shambling anything-can-happen-in-the-negative-space-of-America vibe that Coscarelli introduced with Phantasm (and refined masterfully with Phantasm II) is the throughline that continues to this day, and it's a strong foundation for the goofy guignol that ensues here. And as a riveted journalist, Paul Giamatti brings his A-game, delivering a payoff that provides the perfect off-center grace note.
The scale may be multidimensional, but at its heart, this is a movie about dudes and upholstery. Couches, car seats, floors, polyresinate amalgams — this film is concerned with textures, as is appropriate and expected of a movie that plays subtle games in its depiction and delineation of reality. John Dies at the End combines the left-field energy of Cronenberg's eXistenZ with the hallucinatory genre-sweat of Joseph Kahn's Detention — the formula for one relaxing dip in the plasma pool.