There's a fine line between a genre filmmaker with an offbeat sensibility and a maker of prefab cult movies — someone who appeals too aggressively to a cult audience that doesn't yet exist. Don Coscarelli's career has inched too far across that line.
The creator of the Phantasm series, which developed a dense and satisfying (if fan-oriented) mythology, and the prime fantasy cheese The Beastmaster, Coscarelli has lately been a cult alchemist, mixing up quirky elements aimed at winning a following that his previous films won effortlessly.
Coscarelli's last film, the 2002 horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep, cast Evil Dead icon Bruce Campbell as rock 'n roll icon Elvis Presley, and tried — with limited success — to put the still-living King through a scenario so convoluted that it seemed like an exercise in free association. His latest, John Dies at the End, doubles down on the calculated insanity, piling flashbacks on top of flashbacks on top of parallel universes, portals, space bugs, ESP, a talking dog — you name it. It creates a world without rules, where anything is possible — and that, surprisingly, is a large part of the problem.
Based on the online web serial by Jason Pargin — who later published it under the pseudonym David Wong — John Dies at the End seeks to keep viewers disoriented from the start, but doesn't do enough to reorient them by the finish. It begins near the end, with the hero, also named David Wong (Chase Williamson), relaying his exploits to a reporter (Paul Giamatti) at a Chinese restaurant.
David immediately unnerves the reporter by reading his thoughts, and explains that the source of this and other supernatural powers is a jet-black, sentient designer drug called "soy sauce." Under the sauce, David can not only read minds, but anticipate the future, visit far-out places and blast open the doors of perception.
But all drugs have their unfortunate side effects, and for David and his buddy John (Rob Mayes), that means confronting the terrible beasties that stroll through those doors of perception and threaten to destroy the planet. They're like a scruffier version of the buddy team in Men in Black, but entirely without agency and forced to improvise on the fly. Despite their extrasensory abilities, they don't seem to have any better idea of where this story is going than the audience does.
John Dies at the End gets off to a thrilling start, as David's stories to the reporter turn into self-contained tall tales — like the time he and John confronted a monster composed entirely of frozen meat products. (A monster that is eventually destroyed by merely listening to a popular TV psychic on a cell phone, because why not?)
But once the colorful anecdotes sprawl out into an actual narrative, the film gets convoluted and loud, amplifying the weirdness without doing much to clarify it.
The anything-goes nature of John Dies at the End does result in moments of wit, like John talking to David through a cell phone while also sitting straight across the table from him ("Say hello to me") or the two relaying psychic messages to each other through a $3 bratwurst.
But Coscarelli slacks off in setting up the guard rails for his hallucinatory universe: Even mind-benders like this one have to operate on some internal logic. Otherwise they're all noise, no signal.