Editor’s note: John Dies At The End is now playing in limited theatrical release, so let’s flash back exactly one year to look at Allison’s Sundance review, originally published on January 26, 2012.
We all know what it means to be sauced, but John Dies At The End shows audiences what it means to be “on the sauce” – soy sauce that is, a hallucinogenic drug that not only messes with your mind, it messes with how you perceive time. This idea could be fun, but when you know one of your best friends meets his demise somewhere in that disjointed timeline (no spoilers there, as it’s revealed in the film’s title) this time manipulation becomes both stressful and confusing.
While at a party, Dave (Chase Williamson) gets into a conversation with a reggae “magician” (Tai Bennett) who Dave doesn’t believe can do real magic. But when Robert Marley (the magician’s name, of course) is able to recount, in vivid detail, a dream Dave had the night before, he gets Dave’s attention. Later that night Dave gets a call from his best friend, a panicked and confused-sounding John (Rob Mayes), who thinks he has called Dave a bunch of times already that night and needs him to come over right away.
It is clear John is on something and as Dave attempts to get him some help, he ends up accidentally taking a hit of the drug too. Beyond the immediate effects that turn Dave’s world upside down, it is the side effects that Dave fears will last forever that are most concerning. Although the immediate effects of the drug don’t last too long, Dave realizes in order to get to the bottom of what happened to John, he will need to continue taking the drug and living in this altered reality.
The film is told from Dave’s perspective as he tries to explain his story to Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a reporter he hopes can help him, and their interaction also gives the film some framework, which is needed when time starts to blur. The film is also littered with random moments that eventually get called back on making the seemingly off-the-rails narrative have an unexpected method to its madness and further drives home the idea of dreams where random things you didn’t remember noticing during the day suddenly pop up in a dream you have that night.
John Dies At The End is definitely not for everyone, but fans of Jason Pargin’s novel (published under his pseudonym David Wong, also titled “John Dies At The End”) and director Don Coscarelli should have fun with this very off-kilter tale that plays to old-school horror fans. It is escapism at its best and, in a time when most films rely on technology and special effects to drive their stories, it was almost refreshing to see the inventive ways Coscarelli achieved his out-there vision.
The Upside: The film feels like a combination of Donnie Darko and Limitless, taking audiences down a rabbit hole of crazy adventures and adversaries all while its characters are overly aware of their surroundings. Even though the film spins out of control (and quickly), nothing is random, which makes this crazy ride have some real weight.
The Downside: If you aren’t a fan of Donnie Darko or Limitless, this probably isn’t the movie for you.
On the Side: Don’t do drugs, kids.
Also check out Jack’s review of John Dies At The End from SXSW ’12 here.