1970s horror pioneer Don Coscarelli makes his long awaited return to filmmaking with John Dies at the End: A gory, half remembered nightmare visually recreated for the screen. It's an intentional mess of genres, loose ends, philosophical ramblings, and heavily warped dream logic; all put together by someone who had either just woken from a particularly bizarre dream, or had just consumed vast quantities of illicit substances. This is a movie with enough ideas and graphic violence for at least a trilogy, and it's all hyper edited into one manic collage of surreal madness. Coscarelli has made a film where literally anything can happen at any time, and that type of absolute freedom from conventional storytelling allows for multiple feverishly brilliant sequences, but also leads to unintentional consequences as well.
The opening prologue sets the tone of what's to follow perfectly. A monologue from the protagonist, a late-20s slacker named David Wong, explaining his two encounters with a possibly undead neo-Nazi. In both situations, he was able to defeat this unusual foe by decapitating him with the same small axe. However, in the time between, the handle and blade both had to be replaced, so when the zombified Nazi attacks the second time, is he really being defeated by the same axe? It's an unusual sequence, punctuated by zippy editing and dialogue (everything happens in less than two minutes), which features grotesque gore and a newly established philosophical question. While it does little to jumpstart the plot other than to introduce Wong in broad strokes and present the tone, it functions as the entire film in miniature. For those unsure of whether this type of horror flick would be a good rental, these first two minutes should serve as the best indicator. It's this type of fast paced, heady, violent scenes which make up the bulk of the runtime.
One of the main issues of John is that due to its stream-of-conscience style, there's not much in terms of plot. David Wong and his druggie, metalhead friend John, are paranormal detectives who gain their powers from a mysterious drug from another dimension called Soy Sauce. This drug allows them to read minds, connect with things beyond our plane of existence, see into the future, and levitate. After previously saving the universe with his buddy, he decides to relay the story to a jaded reporter played by Paul Giamatti, in hopes that they will receive some form of recognition for protecting humanity. I won't go into detail how the universe, because it's incredibly convoluted and would seem jumbled and nonsensical to whomever is reading. Below is a link to the Wikipedia plot summary for those who are interested:
Instead of a cohesive plot, there're several vignettes; all of which loosely related to David and John's quest to save the world. Though some may work better than others (the alternate universe set conclusion doesn't particularly work, but at least remains entertaining), the biggest highlight stems from a simultaneously jokey and tense conversation between a pre-Soy Sauce addled David, and a psychic, dreadlocks wearing Jamaican coincidentally named Robert Marley. It may sound incredibly silly in theory, but in the context of the film, it works on a surprisingly brilliant level. The scene mostly consists of David cynically attempting to find cracks in Marley's all knowing, drug fueled charade, all while his mental opponent jokingly dissects and probes his questioner. It's funny and unexpectedly suspenseful, and is complimented by a subtly effective score by Brian Tyler.
John Dies at the End is a frenetic collage of half-assembled ideas and grotesque displays of violence; all of which taking place in a fractured dreamworld of surreal logic and intense weirdness. For those interested in conventional narrative and traditional scares, this may simply come off as a nutty mush of failed ambition, but for those willing to accept the blissfully insane stream-of-conscience stylings of Coscarelli's film, John is a wonderful and sometimes exhilarating experience. Though it's less of a cohesive hole than a pastiche of bizarre sequences, for those who read this review excited for what's to come, it definitely delivers everything promised from the prologue and title.