There are novels that have been deemed “unfilmable” over the years. As a result, these successful literary works have been sitting on “adaptation shelves” in random production houses for years, mostly just there to spruce up the place. While
John Dies at the End is a relatively new novel, it could probably be seen as one of these impossible adaptations. Full of non-logic and giant narrative leaps that make the transition to cinema difficult, it would seem that John would only die at the end within the confines of text. Luckily for movie audiences, though, there is a man named Don Coscarelli and he makes movies that thrive on the odd and dreamlike. The result is his latest, and perhaps most audacious, film: John Dies at the End.
One can really only describe the plot of John Dies at the End in broad strokes. Not because of any threat of spoiling the experience, but because any detailed explanation or examination can really only make your brain hurt. That’s mainly because the world in which the title’s namesake, John(Rob Mayes) and his compatriot Dave(Chase Williamson) lives doesn’t jive with any reality. A rule of this world can shift, and often does, into another seemingly contradictory rule within a moment’s notice. This causes the world and, by extension, our characters to be maddeningly unstable. Happily, though, it’s also a lot of fun. From full out comedy to the more whimsical portrayal of the unpredictable, Coscarelli and company manage to keep the film from slipping into a landslide of the nonsensical and into a fun, unpredictable, and somehow still cohesive adventure into the metaphysical.
In its basest terms, John Dies at the End involves the ingestion of a drug known only as “soy sauce” which then leads the brain to comprehend and engage every fabric of existence, including those that don’t exist yet, all at once. This means John and Dave have the (mis)fortune of knowing all that can be, will be, never will be, and more confusingly, how those all exist at the same time, shifting and floating through a universe of time humanity has no understanding of. Sound confusing? It is, and Coscarelli not only realizes it, he embraces it. He understands it doesn’t really make any sense and, in the end, it really shouldn’t. John Dies at the End isn’t about a serious exploration of the mind, the universe and where the line between the two falls. It is more of a lovingly parodic nudge to the philosophical crowd out there. The human mind and its capability to process and understand that which is, at its core, unfathomable can be overwhelming. But, on the other hand, it can be pretty damn funny. For the sanity of all of us, Coscarelli sides comfortably in the funny camp. This makes the more insane portions of John Dies at the End enjoyable instead of maddening.
Front and center at this playful treatment is the portrayal of the characters by Rob Mayes and Chase Williamson. A horror-comedy is a tough place to perform within. Do you play it straight? Do you play it campy? Do you try to find a balance between the two? For their part Williamson and Mayes manage to treat the events of the film with all the seriousness and weight you’d expect from someone experiencing the simultaneous implosion/explosions of their realities. Within that weight, though, they both sprinkle just enough sarcasm and snark to signal to their audience that we should all just chill out a bit and enjoy the ride. The characters move from one fantastical set piece to fantastical set piece with the wonder you’d expect, but with the important caveat that one really shouldn’t stop and inspect said events. With their “this is happening, get on board and enjoy the ride” performances they never allow the film to buckle under its own aspirations.
If you could ever have a fantastic voyage through the densely metaphysical, John Dies at the End allows for that ride. That fact alone makes this film worth seeing. Add in a well timed meat monster, penis door, and Jamaican mind reader and you get a cinematic experience that might not answer any deep questions but does manage to illicit a few good chuckles, all while making you really glad that filmmakers like Don Coscarelli are out there.