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Writer-director Don Coscarelli’s festival favorite John Dies at the End, based on a horror novel by Cracked.com editor David Wong, is quite Bubba Ho-Tep-ian, and a worthy, entertaining successor to that 2002 Coscarelli freak show. It is not, though, an easily explainable one: The film is about a street drug nicknamed “soy sauce,” an ink-black, seemingly alive potion that you can inject, or, if not, injects itself into you, perhaps by a drop burrowing into your cheek. Once consumed, it makes its user hallucinate, traverse through and double-back on time and space, and sometimes die—temporarily. Lots of blood, guts, dismembered body parts, and giant noisy bugs are involved, and it just gets weirder and more complicated as it goes merrily along.
It starts off weird to begin with, with narration by one of the fast-talking main characters, conveniently named David Wong (Chase Williamson). After saying how difficult it can be to chop the head off somebody—apparently you go through a lot of axes—Dave describes an unexpected visitor: “You meet the reanimated body of the guy you beheaded last year, and [he] wears that unique expression of ‘You’re the man who killed me last winter’ resentment that one so rarely encounters in everyday life.” Shadowy visuals accompany the voiceover, shot angularly and edited to move quickly, of a wide-eyed Dave and a bloodied dude with seams on his neck.
The twitchy Dave is frequently and comically wide-eyed, as he’s one of the few to experience soy sauce but not die, leaving him the only character who can really fix all the problems that the drug’s effects unleash. There’s also his friend John (Rob Mayes), who doesn’t actually die at the end but toward the beginning, and possibly more than once. (Like I said, it’s complicated.) The movie itself travels through time, with Dave telling his story to Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a journalist who doesn’t believe a word of what Dave says has happened since a “fake magical Jamaican” (Tai Bennett) introduced a bunch of unwitting teenagers to soy sauce a couple of years back.
What follows involves many wildly creative or simply bizarre details, including a mustache that tears away from its owner’s face and flies around, an alternate universe, and a dog who drives. Much of it is funny, including a door knob that turns into a penis. (“That door can not be opened!” John says.) But predominantly it’s all just trippy, with John calling Dave just after a cop says he died, or talking to him via a bratwurst, or Dave’s sudden ability to see things before they happen. The film doesn’t so much follow a plot line as one episodic crisis after another involving anyone who hits the sauce, culminating in Dave and John trying to save Earth from another planet/dimension/whatever. Impressively, it’s not as off-puttingly chaotic as it may sound, and despite being no-names, Williamson and Mayes pull off the zaniness with ease, always as earnest or goofy as the script asks them to be. You may not know exactly what’s going on from one minute to the next, but you will be entertained.