John doesn’t die at the end of “John Dies at the End,” although maybe he dies in the middle and possibly more than once. That’s not a spoiler so much as a consumer advisory: This loopy slacker horror farce is so intent on playing with your head — and time, and space, and paranoid conspiracy theories — that it doesn’t care about making sense. Which doesn’t stop the film from being a pretty good bad time.
It’s a cult project all around, from its source (a Web serial-turned-novel by David Wong, a.k.a. writer Jason Pargin) to its filmmaker, B-movie horrormeister Don Coscarelli. Back in the 1970s, Coscarelli gave us “Phantasm,” a work of cut-rate drive-in surrealism, and he followed that up with 2002’s “Bubba-Ho-Tep,” in which an aging Elvis Presley battles an Egyptian mummy in a nursing home. Coscarelli is, to put it mildly, an original.
The director takes a free hand adapting Wong’s novel, which is more or less about two dudes battling an ancient evil spirit with the assistance of a dog, a TV mentalist (Clancy Brown), and a powerful hallucinogen that renders the user clairvoyant. Since the central character, Dave (Chase Williamson), is as confused as we are, “John Dies at the End” works hard to keep us off balance. The beginning’s in the middle, the middle’s at the start, and so forth. Characters turn into cockroaches, refrigerated meat comes alive. It’s like a more sardonic take on “Donnie Darko,” or a fleshed-out version of the bite-size YouTube horror series “Marble Hornet.”
And there is a John (Rob Mayes), Dave’s loudmouthed best friend, who scores the drug known as Soy Sauce from a mysterious Rasta (Tai Bennett) at a party whose participants later end up dead. A weary police detective (Glynn Turman) enters the mix, as does a love interest for Dave in the form of Amy (Fabienne Therese, nicely distressed), whose prosthetic hand comes in, uh, handy for opening doors to alternate dimensions.
“John Dies at the End” is very proud of its ramshackle cleverness, in spite of which the movie manages to be decent unhinged fun. There is a framing device — scenes of Dave Explaining It All to a scruffy reporter played by Paul Giamatti, who seems delighted to be hanging with the kids — but even that disappears up its own wazoo toward the end.
The climactic scenes are inspired, with the minions of Korrok cheerfully trying to talk the heroes over to the dark side while wearing “Eyes Wide Shut” masks — it’s like an Amway meeting of the damned. Still, the movie goes out the way it came in, with a bewildered shrug. From what I understand, Wong’s original story makes a lot more sense, even down to its bait-and-switch title. The movie, by contrast, gets seduced by its own disaffected snark. In its shabby way, “John Dies at the End” is at the forefront of a new genre: The short-attention-span horror movie. The heroes could save the universe, but, really, who has the energy?Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.