If you can get past the hipper-than-thou snark and information overload via voiceover that make its first 10 minutes an endurance test, “John Dies at the End” manages to beat the odds it stacks against itself. It becomes almost as hip and cool as it’s trying to be.
Based on a Web-born comic-horror novel by David Wong and directed by “Phantasm”-series auteur Don Coscarelli (!), with a screenplay penned by both, it’s a blend-o-rama of a movie. Imagine a puree of time-trippy, apocalyptic notions from David Lynch and Gregg Araki films, with a dash of “Donnie Darko” thrown in, plus a dollop of the paranoid, monster-infested visions of writers William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft — only, you know, played for laughs.
Chase Williamson stars as Dave, a reflexively smart-ass twenty-something in Somewhereville, Midwest. In the movie’s framing device, he’s explaining some very strange personal experiences he’s had to a journalist named Arnie (Paul Giamatti, always welcome, though underused). It all starts with a rave Dave attends with his pal John (Rob Mayes), along with Dave’s girlfriend Amy (Fabienne Therese) and Amy’s dog. Yes, the dog is important.
Also at the party is a Jamaican-accented fellow named, um, Robert Marley (Tai Bennett), who’s pushing a new liquid street drug dubbed Soy Sauce. That’s exactly what it looks like — except when its droplets grow spikes, burrow into your skin and send you on a hellish trip. Less a hallucinogen than a conduit to actual other worlds, the Sauce is responsible for some wacko events in this otherwise featureless town: icky, oozing creatures, exploding eyeballs, temporal fluxes, telekinesis and the transference of human souls to other species.
The convoluted mindset of the movie is summed up by John’s throwaway but accurate observation, “I’m remembering things that haven’t happened yet.”
To his credit, after the opening minutes’ initial assault, director Coscarelli lays out the plot’s rules clearly enough, even when it seems that just about anything can happen. And often it does. That includes an un-costumed appearance by gaunt and otherworldly actor Doug Jones, who has made his name buried under latex as fantasy figures in Guillermo del Toro movies (“Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”).
The humor in “John Dies at the End” is what keeps it zipping along but also weakens its closing scenes, when our boys face the evil leaders of a parallel universe. (The topless acolytes inspire Dave and John to call the place “ ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ World.”) What could have been a bona fide freak-out is more of an anticlimactic chuckle, featuring some knowingly lame special effects. Still, you have to give it up to the filmmakers for juggling some interesting ideas, even if the movie ends up more like a twisted variant on a “Bill and Ted” adventure than the sort of soul-wrenching feature David Cronenberg might wish he’d made.
As for that title, is it a case of truth in advertising? Well, to find out, you’ll have to watch the movie.
“John Dies at the End.” With Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti. Directed by Don Coscarelli. Rated R. 99 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.