Director Don Coscarelli is known for making strange horror movies. Phantasm is about a tall man from another dimension that uses a funeral home to take humans, transform them into elf-like creatures, and send them back to his homeland to work as slaves. There are a few similarities between that film and John Dies at the End.
Both involve a monstrous threat from a parallel universe, though John’s threat has a really neat back story that I think would make a great movie in and of itself. Ironically, the monster is the only thing in the movie for which there is a back story. Dave, the protagonist, and the John of the title are a mystery. They seem similar to the heroes of Phantasm, in that ‘decent people from the bad part of town’ sort of way; but we don’t learn anything about their past, except that one used to be in a bad rock band, and really nothing of their present, except for Dave’s girlfriend Amy (who only shows up a few times, though she does have cool part to play near the end).
Both of the guys (along with a few other people) are introduced to a drug called Soy Sauce, which has the effect of making people hyper-aware; both of everything around them, and of the supernatural realm. The first part makes for little more than a parlor trick, one that is literally used to entertain people at parties. The second is what triggers the plot.
The film is very disjointed and at times inexplicable. This is by design, of course, as we’re seeing the story through the eyes of people on a drug that alters perception. But that design choice never-the-less has a real world effect; being that the story is hard to connect to. That’s not to say that John Dies at the End is boring or uninteresting (far from it); but it doesn’t have the kind of story arc that takes you with it.
This is never more apparent than the films climax; which, while fun, doesn’t feel at all climactic. It felt, instead, like the mini-mission that movie characters often go as training before their big mission. Perhaps it’s a virtue that JDatE eschews the cliched movie structure, but for whatever reason, I didn’t find myself as invested in the final battle as I should have been. It lacked the gravitas to make it seem important.
Is John Dies at the End a good movie? It’s entertaining, engaging, and highly original. It has a striking visual style (that’s only helped by its small budget), and the story is completely unpredictable, you will never be able to guess what happens next. But that unpredictability comes at a cost; it keeps the audience on the outside, unable to fully get into the film, or sympathize with its characters. This is the kind of movie that just sort of happens in front of you. But that’s okay, right?