At this point I've seen John Dies at the End three times in less than four months - and I still struggle to come up with any tangible thoughts to write down about it. That doesn't mean the movie is bad - the fact that I've come back to it twice and left all three viewings with a smile is about all you need to know - it just means that John Dies at the End is one of those movies where any simple description of the film is probably an insult to its complexities.
I might be overemphasizing the film's mysteries - I could say that it's a movie about a universe altering drug and two open-minded slackers who stumble into its path - but I'm pretty sure that I'm not. The film feels like a fully random series of disgusting and ludicrous events at times, with its series of meat monsters and demonic mustaches and journeys to "Eyes Wide Shut World" - but there's always something that kind of ties it all back together. It's hard to see, but there's clearly a method to the film's madness.
The film is directed by Don Coscarelli (of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep fame) and the main characters, David Wong (Chase Williamson) and his titular friend John (Rob Mayes), fit right alongside the everyman heroes of the director's most famous works. David is our narrator and host for the proceedings - which are primarily told via flashbacks as he gives his story to a reporter (the always welcome Paul Giamatti) - and he's also the more sensible and restrained member of the team. John, on the other hand, is the more reckless half of the duo, a hard-rocking kind of guy who doesn't back away from much of anything. The two characters work because they are so simple, even when they're faced with otherworldly events. Their calm reaction to all the weird events in the film provides a lot of humor and sets the tone for the whole adventure.
Along the way, David and John run into a lot of bizarre yet entertaining predicaments and meet some very memorable side characters. The highlights of the film, for me, were probably Clancy "The Kurrgan" Brown as the kinda-omniscient mentalist Marconi and Glynn Turman as Police Detective Lawrence Appleton (who happens to share a name with the character from Perfect Strangers and I am not about to give up the dream that Cousin Balki was somewhere in this film too). Brown's character is integral to the plot - once you get through the splatter and find it - but also functions as a kind of running gag thanks to the goofy presentation of the character and some fantastic one-liners. Turman's detective seems to be more grounded in reality than most of the characters in the film at first, but his transformation into a random force of destruction is a nice twist on just how upside down David and John's world has become. Both actors - along with Giamatti in his relatively thankless role as the interviewer - seem committed to keeping the film feeling important amidst the chaos, which works quite well for Coscarelli's film.
Once the characters are established and the "soy sauce" is introduced, the film veers in multiple directions, bouncing between the realms of the drug-induced "trip" horror film, the Evil Deadesque splatter film, and the universe hopping sci-fi extravaganza. It all seems to silly to really add up to anything, but there's something kind of special hidden in the chaotic existence of this film. Coscarelli manages to make a movie that hits on all these random genre expectations while grounding his story in two accessible leads. The film never does what you'd expect it to, and a first glance back might make it look like random gruesomeness - but when you closely piece everything together it actually makes a bit of sense.
Well, at least some of it makes sense. And that eventually makes it more than just a darn fun movie.