You don’t choose the Soy Sauce; the Soy Sauce chooses you!
It is difficult for a film to be scary and funny at the same time. In some cases, a horror comedy favors one emotion over the other. In others, a balance is maintained, but the effort takes the edge off both the horror and the comedy of the picture. In the case of JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012), writer-director Don Coscarelli (“Bubba Ho-Tep,” “Phantasm”) manages to avoid both pitfalls, in the process creating a cult film adaptation of an equally cultish novel of the same name, authored by David Wong. Although it can seem almost silly at times, it leaves the viewer with a sense of the uncanny at the end. This is due to the disorienting effects of the apparently linear narrative. When one looks at the story, one realizes that it does not make sense in the way that its narrator claims it does. The film is really quite subversive; even the apparent spoiler of its title misleads the audience. In fact, after the closing credits, many audience members might well decide that they too have been “chosen by the sauce.”
David Wong is the name of the lead character in the story of both novel and film and of the author of the former. Like Philip K. Dick in Radio Free Albemuth ( the film adaptation of which was reviewed recently on this blog), Wong appears to insert himself into the novel in a seemingly unproblematic way. However, the David Wong of the story is a Caucasian who changed his surname to Wong. He explains that he did so in a bid for anonymity, believing that Wong is the most common surname in the world.
Moreover, David Wong the author is also Caucasian; his real name is Jason Pargin. According to Wikipedia, Pargin adopted the David Wong pen-name “to keep his real and online lives separate. Since much of his writing involved situations similar to his real life, he did not want co-workers and his employers to think that his rants about fictional characters were inspired by real people.” Pargin’s “online life” started with Pointless Waste of Time, the satirical website on which he first published John Dies at the End in serial format. Pargin would later merge this website with the Cracked website, for which he is currently executive editor.
Perhaps David the narrator (Chase Williamson) also wants to obscure the connection between fiction and reality. He proceeds to problematize his story in the film’s opening scene. He introduces the movie in a voice-over in which he narrates a confrontation with a zombie skinhead. He beheads the zombie with an axe after killing him, but the axe handle breaks and must be repaired. Shortly thereafter, the axe head is damaged when David uses it to kill a fish-like alien creature. Finally, the zombie returns (with a reattached head) to confront David. When David wields the axe, the zombie exclaims, “That’s the axe that slayed me!” The entire scene is a set-up for asking a metaphysical question (however tongue-in-cheek): Is an axe that has had its handle and head replaced really the same object?
Having warned the viewer of the questionable validity of appearances, the film cuts to a Chinese restaurant, where David meets with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) to “get the truth out” about his unusual experiences. David (who is apparently a college-dropout slacker) tells Arnie an outlandish tale about his mother’s mental illness, then admits that he is embellishing the story. When next he claims to have paranormal abilities, we sympathize with Arnie’s skepticism.
The remainder of the film is told in flashback sequences, with intermittent returns to the present — or is it the present? It is difficult to determine the correct time sequence of the episodes of David’s story. Can we accept the order in which he relates them as chronological? Initially, the viewer probably will — he or she has yet to learn about “the sauce.”
David’s subsequent story is about how he and his friend John (Rob Mayes) — the character who “dies at the end,” or so we have been told — try to help a young woman, Shelley Morris (Allison Weissman), who claims that her dead boyfriend has been harassing her. Once again, appearances are deceiving. David realizes that John perceives Shelley’s physical attributes much differently than he does. This disparity reveals a deception that requires the assistance of paranormal expert Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), who plays an important part in the outcome of the film. Marconi helps David and John defeat a monster who claims to be Marconi’s supernatural nemesis. However, Marconi’s cheesy, Vegas-style marketing image introduces yet another level of doubt about the authenticity of David’s story.
Not surprisingly, Arnie remains skeptical of David. David tries a different tack to try to win Arnie’s trust. He demonstrates his psychic abilities by recounting Arnie’s last dream, which includes some embarrassing details. Impressed, Arnie asks him to continue his story. David then tells him about a nighttime, outdoor concert played by John and his band. This story finally introduces the “soy sauce,” as well as several important characters.
At the concert, David meets Amy (Fabianne Therese), a young woman who has a prosthetic hand. With friend Fred Chu (Jimmy Wong), David watches from the beer keg as wannabe-gangsta Justin White (Jonny Weston) teases Amy by stealing her hand. Amy has been looking for her dog, Bark Lee, who went missing after biting Robert Marley (Tai Bennett), a Jamaican drug dealer (whose well-known name also reinforces the questionable authenticity of David’s story). David then meets Marley, who proves his own psychic abilities in the same way that David convinced Arnie — by somehow knowing the content of David’s last dream. David then finds Bark Lee and takes him home, intending to return the dog to his owner in the morning.
Later that night, however, David receives a frantic call for help from John. After going over to John’s apartment, observing his paranoid delusional behavior, and finding a syringe filled with a black liquid, he decides that John is having a bad drug trip. John describes buying a drug from Marley called “soy sauce.” He claims that the drug gives him a non-linear perception of time and the ability to perceive alternate dimensions. David doesn’t believe him until he receives a call from John on his phone, despite John’s being there in person at the same time. He decides to take John to the hospital. As they are driving there, David is accidentally pricked by the syringe, which greatly alters David’s perceptions and gives him the same abilities that John had claimed to have.
At this point, the film goes off the deep end in terms of reliability. An inter-dimensional traveler, Roger North (Doug Jones), appears in the back seat of David’s car. He takes David prisoner (John, meanwhile, has lost consciousness). North claims that he has been watching David, who has “an important role to play,” but before North can explain himself, he disappears after David turns the tables and captures him. Immediately afterward, Detective Lawrence Appleton (Glynn Turman) appears and takes David and John to the police station, where they are interrogated separately. David realizes that he can predict Appleton’s questions. Appleton reveals that John is the only known survivor of a drug party at Marley’s home. After being called out of the room, he returns to tell David that John has died (however, this is NOT “the end” of the movie).
At this point, Arnie interrupts the story and again expresses skepticism, but David convinces him by showing him a caged monster in the back of his vehicle. The monster is visible only from an indirect perspective. The film then cuts back to the police station, where David gets another call from John, who helps David escape despite being “dead.” David arrives at Marley’s trailer home, which is now a crime scene. After discovering a cache of the “sauce,” David is confronted by Appleton, who has come to burn down the trailer. Then White, who died at the drug party, shows up, apparently possessed by a legion of demons that goes by the collective name of “Shitload.”
White kidnaps David, placing him in the back of a van in which he has already imprisoned Fred, Amy, Bark Lee, and John, who has returned his consciousness to his body. David takes them to a mall, where he reveals a “ghost door” that can only be opened by Amy. Appleton arrives and kills White. Shitload possesses Appleton, then Fred after Appleton is killed, After killing Fred, John, David, and the dog go through the door after Amy opens it. On the other side, they meet North and Marconi, who have teamed up against an organic AI known as Korrok (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson), who turns out to be the source of all the anomalies. Marconi tells them that they must destroy Korrok and gives them a weapon with which to do so.
Further plot outlining would result in much more serious spoilers than have already been given. Suffice it to say that the situation becomes even more outlandish, but it does appear to explain what has been going on in the film — that is, until the film flashes forward to the end of David’s interview with Arnie, which ends by revealing information about Arnie that undermines David’s credibility.
Is David’s entire story a delusion? Does he really have paranormal powers induced by the “soy sauce”? Is the “soy sauce” itself real (at least, in the world of the film’s story)? After all, David’s own East Asian last name is a false front. Could a drug named after a common East Asian condiment also be a fraud? You will need to judge for yourself by watching the film. But beware — you are likely to fall under the influence of author Wong and writer-director Coscarelli, who have liberally seasoned the “dish” of their story with their own special “sauce.”