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John Dies at the End begins with a riddle posed by the narrator about an axe, a hardware store, and a zombie. The riddle, which may or may not have anything to do with the movie’s swirling vortex of insects, aliens, and drugs, goes unsolved – or does it? Who knows? The whole movie is an inside joke, a shaggy-dog tale that asks us to pay close attention to its twists and turns, but never rewards us for doing so.
Much-hyped, John Dies at the End is a collaboration between horror auteur Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) and Cracked.com editor David Wong, adapting Wong’s 2007 viral Web serial-turned-novel of the same name. Thus the film has a built-in fan base: the readers of Cracked, a user-generated, list-based humor site (and the 21st-century iteration of the defunct print magazine long-regarded as the poor man’s Mad). The Cracked community will be John Dies at the End’s most astute critics and fervent supporters. From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like a gory mashup of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Lost Highway, and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
The narrator/protagonist is "David Wong" (Williamson, portraying the "real-life" Wong, whose actual name happens to be Jason Pargin). Dave has accidentally ingested a drug called Soy Sauce, which opens the mind to an otherworldly, and ultimately dangerous, dimension. He is looking for his friend John, (Mayes), who disappeared while on the sauce, but is leaving Dave voicemails from beyond the grave. Meanwhile, Dave is fleeing a smorgasbord of monsters and, retrospectively, spilling the whole story to a reporter (Giamatti).
A confusing plot to begin with, the adaptation of the novel is a certified mess, attempting to provide blow-by-blow illustrations of scenes from the source book, and lifting most of the narration and dialogue verbatim, without successfully translating the story from "book mode" to "movie mode." Wong’s prose in the novel is fairly lucid, but this screenplay is a baffling, tedious, insurmountable jumble of framing devices and narrative gambits, from past-tense voiceovers to present-tense interior monologues to flashbacks and flash-forwards. Perhaps to think about John Dies at the End is to overthink it: The punch line is that there is no punch line … and that’s the punch line. A horror comedy custom-tooled for a midnight theatrical audience, it should only be viewed in that context, buoyed by the chemistry of a packed house and a few pints of liquid courage. Whatever you do, don’t watch it at home, alone, sober.
For more on the film, see "Spoiler Alert," February 22.