Salvador Dalí is often quoted as saying "I don't do drugs I am drugs." Whether or not this is a case of attribution decay it's certainly an appropriate statement for the surreal artist. Although it would be silly to suggest that John Dies at the End is on par with such an influential artist (and the movie will certainly never take over Dalí's monopoly of dorm room posters and assorted ephemera) it definitely feels like taking a trip down the rabbit hole.
Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes star as Dave and John respectively best buds and regular dudes who find themselves face to face with grotesque monsters from alternate dimensions and a panoply of other mind-bending horrors all thanks to a drug nicknamed Soy Sauce. The Sauce is an icky sentient black goop that destroys most of the people who inject it (and those who live will never be the same). When we meet Dave and John they're problem-solvers of a sort; if something weird is happening to you — say you're being harassed by your dead boyfriend — they're the ones to call.
The Sauce didn't kill them; it has given them a certain insight into the twisted nature of the universe. Much to Dave's dismay it chose them to save us from certain doom on a regular basis starting with a gross creature from another dimension called Korrok. It's kind of a bubbly vat of sentient goo with one terrible eyeball and it gains knowledge through osmosis. Naturally Korrok would like to nibble on Dave and John to learn their ways so it and a whole legion of freaky followers can hop into our dimension and take over the world we live in. Before they can do that they have a whole host of other problems to deal with like John's untimely demise for starters.
John Dies at the End is a logic puzzle that the viewer has to tease out the meaning of. It benefits from subsequent viewings especially since writer/director Don Coscarelli and author David Wong throw so much at you from the very beginning. (Coscarelli adapted the book for the screen.) It's a hallucinatory midnight movie that is so damn fun it's easy to forgive just how hazy it seems in hindsight. There's also a certain sense of disappointment when Dave and John's mission comes to an end possibly because the two characters and all the weird things they encounter are so entertaining that we hate to leave them.
Coscarelli fans will especially appreciate a small cameo by Angus Scrimm who played the terrifying Tall Man in Coscarelli's Phantasm series as a priest. And any genre lover worth their Sauce will love seeing Doug Jones out of prosthetics (but no less disarming) as a creepy interstellar traveler. Paul Giamatti plays a skeptical journalist who's writing a story about Dave and his misadventures; this narrative is the framing device and ultimately is a bit of a disappointment.
The practical effects have a nice goopy look to them and Coscarelli makes the smart decision to use an animated sequence for some scenes that would have been extraordinarily difficult to create on such a small budget. John Dies at the End is alternately trippy gross and droll and it has a cool B-movie vibe without looking too cheap. Although it's available on demand this would be a fun night out at the movies.