Major spoiler here, sorry, but John (Rob Mayes) doesn't die at the end of John Dies at the End. He actually shuffles off his mortal coil somewhere in the middle. But being under the influence of the mystical "soy sauce" does have its perks: he can make phone calls from the afterlife, no cell carrier needed, and he can see forwards and backwards and slantways in time, which can be a head trip in itself for a guy who's already a few Froot Loops short of a full bowl. For the rest of us, better pay attention because linear is not a working adjective here.
Also out of step is his partner in supernatural investigations and fumigations, Dave (Chase Williamson), but Dave's more practical. He changed his last name to Wong so he'd be harder to find. Until the soy sauce chooses him. The drug either likes you or kills you, and that's on a good day, but it seems to have a grand-scheme-plan in mind for John and Dave. With all the time-tripping, reality-tripping, and dimension-tripping going on, they have their hands full and need all the soy sauce and dumb luck available to stay alive, even if they're dead now and then. A garden shed full of weapons and other useful artifacts in their fight against the weird incursions into their small Illinois town provides additional help. So does the ability to see things out the corners of their eyes, like big long-legged bugs clinging to ceilings, when nobody else can.
Think Stoner movie like Altered States, but instead of isolation tanks or cannabis smoke, the highs come from soy sauce, a mind-expanding, reality-trashing, hypodermic-delivered drug that's a little X-Files black goo, a little Prometheus's black goo, and icky black goo in general, but with more short hairs and a meaner attitude spiking it. It can even morph into flies to make you say ahh and take your required dosage when needed.
Don Coscarelli directs this wild trip of a movie by capturing the wild trip of the novel's events and temperament, visually and semantically, although obfuscation by everyone involved is the norm for both novel and movie. Lots of quirky visual effects like flacid doorknobs you'd go blind touching, a smart one-eyed monster with a lot of tentacles and world-domination on its mind, flesh eating gnats with human hosts on their hive-collective mind, and an absurdity-breaching, brilliantly executed, animated cartoon gorefest, showing what happens when giant spiders meet unlucky people, stretches this budget's limitations to the max.
Loony tuned? Yes. But Coscarelli knows how to mix practical and computer effects for that cult movie affect with whatever small budget he's given and still emote effectively through all the zaniness. One wonders what other mysteries, left unexplored, might have dazzled us with him given a little more production pocket change. Yet more money gets siphoned into empty tanks like Texas Chainsaw 3D, while creative edge-pushers like Coscarelli get bubkiss.
Talk about absurdity.
Where the goo comes from is a mystery, but Robert Marley (Tai Bennett), the Jamaican with the drugs, taps into it with bad results. Once people start tripping with it, doors to other dimensions open up and things that were waiting for the opportunity can now step over the threshold. This is the premise of both novels, John Dies at the End and This Book is Full of Spiders. Thwarting the monstrosities plotting our demise is not only John and Dave, but super psychic and gadfly to the other-worldly menace, Dr. Marconi (Clancy Brown). He can destroy freezer meat monsters with a phone call, and he handles Russian weapons of mass destruction, needed in a timely fashion, with ease. Dave's one-handed girlfriend Amy (Fabianne Therese) also plays a key role by using her missing hand.
Everything's told in flashbacks as Dave meets up with Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a corduroy suited reporter looking for an interesting story, in a chinese restaurant that's empty except for the limping waitress and one other patron. Arnie doesn't buy what Dave's selling until he learns how to look out the corner of his eye.
Alien nastiness, alternate Eyes Wide Shut worlds, a truck driving dog, an attacking mustache, and the inimitable Paul Giamatti make for a fun time in this cult movie. If Coscarelli doesn't get more money or the go ahead to do the next novel in the series, This Book is Full of Spiders, I'm going to be very disappointed. Horror movie romps like this are too few and too far between.