A shaggy-dog story with restless leg syndrome, “John Dies at the End” may not amount to much, but there’s no denying its sheer entertainment value. Mixing slacker laughs with inter-dimensional creepy-crawlies, it’s a zing-packed horror comedy that coasts by on sheer bravado, twisted wit and endless adrenaline.
Cult writer-director Don Coscarelli (“Bubba Ho-Tep,” “The Beastmaster,” “Phantasm”) drolly adapts the novel by David Wong (a pen name for Jason Pargin), and even if the story’s rules and logic seem to be ever-shifting, it never feels like the movie is cheating or pulling the rug out. We’re set up for a lunatic funhouse of a plot, and that’s exactly what we get.
Dave (Chase Williamson) meets with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti, who also executive produced) to tell him of his recent extraordinary adventures that saved the universe as we know it. Or something like that. His journey involves a street drug known as “soy sauce,” which gives its users superhuman powers of perception and the ability to see the future and to travel between dimensions.
Dave’s best friend John (Rob Mayes) takes the drug and then dies (in the middle, actually), only to find other forms in which to exist before manifesting inside a dog and then back into his own corpse, and…
Look, there’s no way to really explain this story without note cards and a flow chart; suffice it to say that Dave and John encounter a variety of bizarro occurrences, including a bratwurst that acts as a cell phone, teenagers possessed by what look like fruitflies, a flying mustache, a monster made of frozen meat, an infomercial psychic (played by Clancy Brown) who may hold the keys to the mysteries of existence, and a cop (Glynn Turman of “Gremlins”) who wants to set everyone and everything that’s been exposed to the drug on fire before they can create any more trouble.
“John Dies at the End” seems to be designed for multiple viewings, as it pretty much dissolves inside your brain the second it’s over, but there’s no denying the little pops of pleasure it provides along the way. Relative newcomers Williamson and Mayes make charismatic tour guides in this crazy world, and their ability to anchor material this flimsy and seemingly unmanageable speaks well for their futures as actors in more narratively stable films.
Giamatti gets the relatively thankless as-told-to role, but he’s clearly having a ball in his ill-fitting schlub costume; if nothing else, he does “And then what happened?” about a hundred times more interestingly than Rafe Spall does in “Life of Pi.”
This movie may, in the final analysis, be nothing but stoner silliness with the occasional gross-out. But if you happen to be in the market for stoner silliness with the occasional gross-out, “John Dies at the End” does it particularly well.