“The name grabbed me instantly, but when I read the log line about a street drug called ‘soy sauce’ and a pair of mid-west slackers battling a silent otherworldly invasion, I was hooked. Since my youth I’ve had a rabid interest in the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres. Many of my previous films have explored the surreal and strange. What I love about JOHN DIES AT THE END is that in addition to being hide-under-the-bed scary, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”–Don Coscarelli, director’s statement
DIRECTED BY: Don Coscarelli
PLOT: A college dropout named David Wong tells a story to a journalist at a Chinese restaurant while under the influence of a drug called “soy sauce.” He reveals that the sauce has given him and his friend John psychic powers that enable them to see inter-dimensional intruders who are bent on conquering our reality. He then relates the story of how, together with his one-handed girlfriend and her dog, he and John traveled to the alternate dimension to thwart the invasion.
- John Dies at the End was adapted from a comic novel of the same name. The name of the story’s protagonist and the author are both “David Wong,” which is actually a pseudonym for Jason Pargin. “John Dies” began life as a short story posted on Pargin’s blog.
- Don Coscarelli had been working on a sequel to his previous feature, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), with Paul Giamatti, but funding fell through. Giamatti supported the idea of adapting John Dies at the End instead, and served as executive producer on the substitute project.
- Coscarelli credits Amazon’s recommendation algorithm with suggesting the novel “John Dies to the End” to him.
- The movie’s prologue is a modern zombie-based variation on an ancient philosophical paradox called “the ship of Theseus” (in the book, the prologue refers to an ending that is not explicitly present in the movie).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We can’t actually mention the movie’s most memorable image here, both thanks to the fact that it’s obscene, and that doing so would spoil what may be the movie’s best joke. Those who’ve seen the film already, however, will doubtlessly remember the door that “cannot be opened.”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jason Pargin wrote a sprawling comedy novel in part about two party-hearty college dropouts who take a mysterious drug nicknamed “soy sauce” that makes them clairvoyant, enabling them to perceive an invasion by demonic forces from another dimension. Don Coscarelli, the writer/director of Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series, took note of this literary property and decided to adapt it, chopping up the timeline and adding hallucinatory demonic visuals until the result plays out like a bad trip brought on by shooting up way too much of an experimental psychedelic drug.
Original trailer for John Dies at the End
COMMENTS: Here’s an unexpected spoiler for you: John doesn’t die at the end of John Dies at the End. At least, I don’t think he does. But it may depend on how you define “dies,” and how you define “the end.” After all, according to the movie, “time is an ocean, not a garden hose,” and who’s to say where the ocean ends? Furthermore, it is obvious from the very first scene that in John‘s world what is dead doesn’t necessarily stay dead. For John, maybe death is a temporary setback, not necessarily a major life-changing event. It helps that John’s doped up on a hallucinogenic drug that makes him intermittently omniscient, able to flit through time and see cockroaches and other alien creatures intent on invading this world, and make phone calls on a bratwurst. All of this is pretty confusing, at least on the first go-round, and it’s best to just let go and ride the wave. Later, careful examination will reveal that John‘s reality is not as arbitrary as it initially seems (although it’s still pretty darn strange), but first timers should just relax and let the movie take you where it will.
John Dies in the End starts out by lying to you in its very title, and is playfully insistent on misdirection throughout its running time. David Wong (it’s an assumed name) is an unreliable narrator on multiple fronts. He starts telling us his story while he’s tripping on an exotic drug. He begins his interview with Arnie, the journalist he’s summoned to a Chinese restaurant to tell his paranormal story, with a lie about his mother; he then corrects himself, but insists the writer should use the false version because it makes a better story. Arnie himself suggests Dave’s story is all a hoax, a mentalist con. Later in the movie David doubts his sanity, and a priest (Angus Scrimm in cameo) explains to David that if he were mad, he wouldn’t know it, anymore than he can see his own eyeball. He wouldn’t feel crazy, but the rest of the world would go crazy around him—which is indeed what happens in the film. Suggesting further ways to muddy the lines between fantasy and reality, a detective posits that “stuff is both real and not real at the same time,” that the demons of Hell exist unseen alongside us, just like that unheard country music station that’s always there even though you never listen to it. At any point in the story, any character Dave is talking to may turn out to be a ghost, a hallucination, or a host body possessed by an interdimensional alien. Drug-induced delirium, tall tale, or mix of reality and fantasy: take your pick. Inside the world of the movie, Dave has some powerful evidence that what’s happening to him is real; but if it’s all part of an extended soy sauce trip, then he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, would he?
Coscarelli’s initial strategy is disorientation. He begins the movie with a philosophical metaphor that connects to nothing in the movie’s future: skinhead revenants play no part in John‘s plot, nor is the question of identity an issue of particular concern in this scenario (in the book, there is a reason for the riddle, but thematic relevance became a victim of the movie’s running time, leaving the prologue as a curiosity hanging in space). After the first part of Dave’s interview with Arnie, we cut to an out-of-sequence flashback that involves Dave and his buddy John in an unrelated occult escapade, as they deal with an apparition in a friend’s basement that is able to take the form of a column of snakes or an assemblage of sausages. It’s a great standalone sequence that sets up the buds as a pair of nearly-competent paranormal troubleshooters, while simultaneously introducing a few of the supernatural rules of John‘s world and Clancy Brown’s Dr. Marconi, a ghostbusting superhero hiding in plain sight as a cheesy television psychic. The scene is completely out of narrative sequence, however, and doesn’t advance the main plot one bit, occurring long after the main action has concluded. The audience is left a little dazed by this opening rush, having already been jerked around in time, space and reality.
After a manic first fifteen minutes, however, the movie pulls another unexpected switcheroo by turning into a linear narrative (albeit one that is admittedly interrupted by phone calls coming in from the past and/or future, a device that also becomes an opportunity a comic riff on the cellphone conversation from Lost Highway). Although it plays by its own rules and wallows in its own offbeat frat-boy humor, John Dies is full of citations to staples of pulp-horror mythology—zombies, alien possessions, psychics—that set it in a tradition of such miscellaneously paranormal milieux as “The X-Files,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Dylan Dog.” The informality of that loose, anything-goes subgenre, together with the knowledge that we are seeing all the action through the eyes of drug-addled psychic slackers, gives John license to pack as much superfluous weirdness as it can into 100 demented minutes. Let’s start with the drug soy sauce, which is a viscous fluid that can grow hairlike follicles and seems like it might possibly be alive. Taking it allows you to perceive the otherwise unseen spider, scorpion and centipede-type aliens that share the planet with us. There’s a mustache that flies off an upper lip and attacks Dave, a dog who can drive a car, and a phantom door that can only be opened by a phantom limb. Then things really get weird once Dave and the sort-of-dead John travel to an alternate dimension where a topless cult in creepy rubber masks (“apparently, it’s Eyes Wide Shut-world,” John quips) take the pair to pre-prepared thrones and show them gory cartoons of a massacre of innocent families by killer spiders. “If Franz Kafka was here, his head would explode,” John and Dave independently observe. Oh, and through all these crazy adventures there is a sly running joke about Dave’s homophobic obsession with penises, which culminates in some of the strangest taunts ever thrown out by an omniscient biological supercomputer.
A film adaptation of a novel with as much cult appeal John Dies at the End by an auteur as idiosyncratic as Don Coscarelli must deal with two distinct fanbases, which may overlap somewhat but are hardly congruent. Coscarelli fans, who have been waiting for a decade since Bubba Ho-Tep for a new feature phantasmagoria from the now 60-year old director, were delighted. As might be expected, some of the movie’s harshest critics so far have been fans of the original book, who are (perhaps understandably) upset that Coscarelli’s sensibilities have displaced Wong’s. Putting aside the inevitable, and silly, complaints that this or that favorite incident or minor character didn’t make the final cut (I actually read multiple protests that the dog’s name was changed), most of the criticisms argue that the film adaptation lacks depth: too little character development, and no mention of the deeper existential themes the book could address in a leisurely fashion. Armed with the full backstory, the novel’s fans didn’t raise the major objection that occurred to most newcomers to this world: utter confusion about what was actually going on in the story. Coscarelli may be accused of haphazard storytelling in John Dies, but I prefer to look at it a different way. Coscarelli’s screenplay actually hangs together, although it may take more than one viewing to sort out all the details. But this director is not motivated by a desire to guide the audience from plot point A to plot point B with maximum efficiency; he wants to assemble grandiose moments intended to amaze us. John Dies was a novel full of picaresque oddities and weird incidents, which is doubtlessly what attracted Coscarelli. He attacks the material as if he’s intoxicated by it, and we get a contact high from his enthusiasm. “You don’t choose the soy sauce, the soy sauce chooses you,” John reminds Dave. The soy sauce chose Don Coscarelli, and we are all just observers of the wild trip it takes him on.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…revels in its anarchic lack of structure, happily swerving from stoner comedy to gutbucket horror to ‘Donnie Darko’-esque sci-fi allegory without pausing or slowing down. The more explanation there is, the more confusing the whole thing becomes, until it lets go of all sense in a way that is at once exhilarating and weirdly moving.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Director Don Coscarelli isn’t especially smooth or coherent, and he leans on weird for weird’s sake.”–Tom Long, Detroit News (contemporaneous)
“…a strangely good-natured trip into the bizarre… It is not a movie that exists in the normal realm of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It is rather something so weird and off the beaten track that it’s kind of wonderful — assuming you appreciate that sort of thing.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress (contemporaneous)
John Dies at the End – The first official site contains a synopsis, cast and crew bios, trailer, still gallery, etc.
John Dies at the End (Official Movie site) – This second official site was set up by distributor Magnet Releasing after they acquired the film, and contains links to a pressbook and a slightly different set of stills
IMDB LINK: John Dies at the End (2012)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
John Dies at the End by David Wong – Official site for the original novel “John Dies at the End;” includes a “book trailer” for the sequel, “This Book Is Full of Spiders”
I Am John Dies at the End, Don Coscarelli and David Wong – A Reddit “ask me anything” interview with Coscarelli and Wong
List Candidate: John Dies at the End (2012) – Alex Kittle’s original assessment of the film for this site, written during the movie’s theatrical run
DVD INFO: Probably sensing a future cult for this flick, the Magnet DVD (buy) is packed with far more supplemental material than the film’s meager box office would seem to warrant. The most substantial feature is the collaborative commentary track by Coscarelli, producer Brad Baruh, and stars Williamson and Mayes. The other extra features are nearly ten minutes of deleted scenes, a short documentary on the special effects, an even shorter general “making of” featurette, audition footage, a “Fangoria” interview with Giamatti, and trailers.
The Blu-ray edition (buy) comes with the same features.