Kids born in 1992 can buy beer now, and according to the usual timeline of nostalgia, this means that the fetishization of all things ’90s is already well underway. And while John Dies at the End is assuredly a product of today’s online world, it feels remarkably like the work of a sensibility frozen at about 1996.
To jump back, which this flashback-within-a-flashback movie does its fair share of, the material that makes up John Dies at the End began life as a prose Web serial by David Wong, the pseudonym of Jason Pargin. Wong’s stories, about strange goings-on in a Midwestern Anytown , snowballed in page-view popularity to the point of earning a proper publication by St. Martin’s Press, and now this. Gathering an audience through online word of mouth, Wong has created a genuine cult phenomenon. Coscarelli’s film, however, groans with the strain of attempting to heave a cult object into being. (Much the same can be said of Coscarelli’s 2002 Bubba Ho-Tep, which mistakes a wacky title and the casting of Bruce Campbell for a worked-through movie.)
After a prologue establishing Coscarelli’s tone of aggressive irreverence, we meet the movie’s David Wong, played by Chase Williamson, who, like Pargin, is not Chinese, which suggests the movie and its source’s dedication to a wink-wink quirkiness. Wong meets at a diner with a reporter (Paul Giamatti) to whom he’s attempting to demonstrate psychic abilities and to unburden himself of the story of how he happened to gain them. Wong relates how he and his buddy, John (Rob Mayes), were dosed with an unheard-of designer drug called “Soy Sauce,” which opened both of their minds to the invisible network of sinister and supernatural happenings around them—manifestations of an effort by denizens from a horrible parallel reality to kick down the door to our own, an invasion that David and John alone can repel, all during the one crazy night that the bulk of the movie is devoted to.
Williamson and Mayes, artfully scruffy, have the smirking interplay usually reserved to imminently slapable twentysomething bros going through the drive-through in fast-food commercials. They speak in that sarcastic Kevin Smith/You Don’t Know Jack voice so ubiquitous in the ’90s, which has since moved into the realm of advertising voiceover. There is no attempt to foster inner life in the characters, as attitude trumps interaction, and disconnected throwback signifiers accumulate. The loquacity and temporally shuffled narrative is off-the-rack Tarantino; the bizarro mind-benders, “Lynchian”; the horror-comic asides combining the mundane and the fantastic,”Raimi-esque”; the grab bag borrowing of avant-garde techniques, straight up Natural Born Killers. John, wearing a sock hat, performs in a band called Three-Arm Sally that could have appeared in the background of a My So-Called Life party. The CGI is close to what you would encounter in PC gaming during the Clinton administration. Seventies retro thrift-store decor abounds, and a “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)”–spoofed “wigger” shows up and says “ganked,” which I am fairly certain is no longer in common parlance. I have concluded, then, that John Dies at the End is a product of a parallel universe where slacker flippancy never got old—and, oh, it is terrible.