What defines a cult movie? A book of essays, The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason, attempted to break down the different flavors of cult classic. On one hand, a cult movie can be a film that’s regularly viewed with great frequency by a devoted audience. This definition can extend to movies ranging from Casablanca to Thor: Ragnarok. These, author Bruce Kawin writes, are “inadvertent cult films.”
And then there are movies that seek out cultdom. Kawin calls these programmatic cult films, and they “offer and glory in otherness—in extreme spectacles of rebellion,” which can include “wacko power” and “wacko banality.” These movies offer something distinctly outside the mainstream, something the viewer’s never seen before.
It’s this second category where Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End fits like a glove. A sci-fi action movie which gleefully throws convention out the window, it’s less concerned with having an airtight plot than in taking viewers on a journey into an alternate dimension when pig brain-based computers have evolved into eldritch horrors and a drug called soy sauce projects the dead into new realities.
John Dies at the End stars David Wong (Chase Williamson), who isn’t Asian but changed his last name after learning it was the most common surname in the world. David doesn’t want to be found, but he does want to talk to journalist Arnie (Paul Giamatti) about what’s been happening to him. Because it’s been a lot. And while Arnie doesn’t exactly believe all the psychic tricks David pulls by naming the coins in his pocket and the dreams he had last night, he's willing to listen.
The movie opens with David discussing a gruesome Ship of Theseus scenario. If a person chops a man’s head off with an ax, then has to change the ax handle, then later has to change the ax head, and then the man comes back to life and asks if that’s the ax that killed him, what do you say?
With no clear answer, David starts to tell Arnie about a party he went to with John (Rob Mayes), his girlfriend Amy (Fabianne Therese), their friend Fred (Jimmy Wong), and Amy’s dog Bark Lee. David encounters a supposedly Jamaican drug dealer supposedly named Robert Marley (Tai Bennet) who’s able to pull off the same psychic tricks David pulled on Arnie.
After the party, an incoherent John calls David with a plan to help an acquaintance, Shelly (Allison Weissman) get rid of an abusive beyond-the-grave boyfriend, just like celebrity psychic and exorcist Dr. Marconi (Clancy Brown) is famous for doing. After Shelly dissolves into snakes and the two are attacked by a meat monster, Dave starts to wonder what’s got into John’s life. The answer? Soy sauce, John’s name for the black liquid drug Robert Marley was selling.
Soy sauce, David learns, is incredibly powerful. After an accidental injection, he begins encountering alternate dimensions and bizarre creatures, including a tall man named Roger North (Doug Jones) who appears in his backseat, puts a creepy monster down his shirt, and starts telling him about how if you ever hear a word for the first time, you will inevitably hear it again within the next twenty-four hours.
If all of this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. But John Dies at the End offers an enjoyable type of confusion accompanied by gorgeous visuals and wacky scenarios. A movie where our hapless heroes have trouble escaping a basement because the doorknob turns into a penis is one that quickly establishes a world where you should expect the unexpected.
In its second half, John Dies at the End settles into a plot of sorts. A detective (Glynn Turman) pulls David in because nearly everyone who has tried soy sauce is dead, although David escapes with the help of soy sauce-enabled time travel. Then a white teenager who wants to be a gangster turns into a monster and guides the gang to the Mall of The Dead, where they finally enter the pig-computer dimension.
Again, this might not make sense. John Dies at the End feels like a theme park ride, flashing new and exciting elements every few minutes. But they’re all fun, and the characters are easy to root for. Don’t go in expecting a clear story and you’ll have a great time.
John Dies at the End is streaming on HBO Max.