The title of Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End seemingly offers a premature diffusion of one of the horror genre’s elemental questions: Who’s gonna get it? So, as Dave (Chase Williamson) and the assumedly doomed John (Rob Mayes) are introduced, fighting meat monsters, seeing through time, and struggling through other various perils of life in a perpetual multi-dimensional drug haze, at least one box seems to be inevitably checked. But as this flabby slab of macabre nonsense trudges through the motions, Coscarelli, who also adapted the screenplay from David Wong’s cult novel, makes it clear that any literal meaning given to any minor facet of John Dies at the End is for the birds or, in this case, the decaying, mutant birds.
And that, more or less, is the rub. As enjoyably nutty and unburdened as Coscarelli’s film intermittently succeeds at being, suggesting but never attaining an abandonment of familiar narrative structure, it also consistently feels like an unattended idling motor, existing for the sheer purpose of existing. Told in flashback by Dave to a low-tier reporter (the forever-welcome Paul Giamatti), the narrative is powered by the hallucinogenic frivolities that appear when John and Dave take doses of an elusive drug known as Soy Sauce that, allowed to take its full course, renders the user a burnt, bloodied husk. This is the proposed end game of all of Earth’s inhabitants, perpetrated by a powerful supreme being from a parallel universe, lest John and Dave save the day, with some help from a rogue cop (Glynn Turman) and a cult leader (Clancy Brown). Oh, and there’s a dog.
In terms of blind lunacy, John Dies at the End is agreeable to a point, but the frantic, grotesque imagery ironically only highlights Coscarelli’s inability to truly cut ties with the constraints of accepted storytelling. The filmmaker’s primary tactic is assault, in this case a barrage of shallow strangeness and visual non sequiturs, but it all comes out atonal. Wong’s novel is intriguingly loopy enough, laced with menace and a vital rambunctiousness, but Coscarelli seems to take the story’s dark absurdist randomness as an invitation to make a sloppy, surprisingly uninventive film that dissolves from memory almost instantly. And if the film’s haphazardness is unmistakably due to formal ambivalence, whether John perishes or does the Madison in a synagogue at the end really doesn’t matter.