Saturday, October 18, 2014

“You don’t choose the soy sauce…”

 “…the soy sauce chooses you!”  A character in the 2012 film John Dies at the End utters these preposterous words, which also profoundly summarize the existential threat facing humanity and consciousness itself.  Though very much its own creation, the film will remind some viewers of the more hallucinatory sections of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1995), David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), and especially the underrated but effective Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000).  The film also owes much to late 1960s psychedelia, in particular, to some of the loopier episodes of TV shows like The Monkees, (for example, the “Mijacogeo” episode, in which the band mates discover a plot to conquer humanity using television as a channel for alien thought control).

In Carpenter’s film, the books written by “Sutter Kane”—a stand-in for H.P. Lovecraft—drive their readers insane and simultaneously unravel the nature of reality in very Lovecraftian ways.  Naked Lunch is loosely based on the life of William S. Burroughs and several of his books; the lead character imbibes various substances, beginning with “bug powder”, which allow him to discover that his fate is in the hands of a giant, extraterrestrial insect. 

In Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a group of young tourists camps out in the notorious woods outside Burkittsville.  During a party around a campfire, the group falls under the influence of the local genius malus, runs amok, and slaughters all the people at a neighboring campsite.  They flee to the fortress-like home of one of the members while a police investigation is underway.  So much depends on video!  It is by piecing together scraps of video images and ghostlike memories that the survivors of the mayhem are able to reassemble their minds and remember the horror of their actions.  By then of course, it is too late—they are already damned souls.  This is the most interesting part of the film, which is essentially a clinical study of dissociated personality syndrome. 

All three of these films ask the haunting questions: What is real? How reliable is our understanding of reality?  And so does John Dies at the End, though the tone is more darkly comedic.  As in Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, reality becomes completely unglued following a party, this one held after a performance by John’s band.  A Jamaican drug dealer proffers a new street drug he produces, called “Soy Sauce”.  Its effects include heightened intelligence, altered perception and clairvoyance.  But these are just the “side effects” as David, the narrator, reports.  The lasting effect is to cause the user to become unstuck in time, (similar to Billy Pilgrim’s experience in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s classic 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five).  Soy Sauce also reveals other dimensions overlapping that of Earth’s, filled with monstrosities and a malevolent invading entity called “Korrok”.

What follows is a bracing phantasmagoria of gruesome violence, otherworldly creatures, and disturbing bodily hallucinations.  David relates all this while sitting in a Chinese restaurant with a middle-aged man named Arnie, a “future reporter” who wants to produce a book based on David’s revelations.  Soy Sauce is part of a larger plot to alter humanity’s perceptions of reality, allowing the entity known as Korrok to infiltrate this dimension and control it, as it rules another planet Earth in an alternate universe.  In the context of the film, it makes perfect sense that the only weapon effective against Korrok is another hallucinogen.  Along the way, John Dies at the End manages to poke fun at numerous horror and science fiction tropes and comment on many aspects of popular culture.

Despite the frenetic pace and superficially incoherent plot, continuity is skillfully maintained through the recurrence of various images: “Bark Lee” is the ever present and heroic dog; John’s spooky cell phone voice guides his friend David through the visual chaos; Arnie’s skepticism fades and his panic grows as the interview proceeds; Detective Appleton gradually pieces together the events that led to multiple murders; the Soy Sauce itself takes on a life of its own.  The film achieves the poetic unity of a nightmare—a non-linear presentation of disturbing images that gradually but not entirely coalesce to form a whole new terrifying world.

Not surprisingly, religious themes surface throughout the film.  In one powerful scene, the Jamaican drug dealer, (“Do you dream, man?”) berates David for his limited understanding of reality and consciousness.  He references a story from the Old Testament book of Daniel, in which the prophet is able to describe and explain Nebuchadnezzar’s dream without ever having heard it, thus saving his life and that of his imprisoned friends.  The drug dealer does the same for David, having the clairvoyant powers that the Soy Sauce provides.  He too is now a prophet, and David will soon become one.  Later in the film, David and John do battle with the minions of Korrok using baseball bats plastered with pages from the Old and New Testaments.

In another visually arresting scene, (among many), one of Korrok’s minions describes the history of the alternate planet earth, which saw the evolution of organic thinking machines which eventually developed into the entity called Korrok.  The presentation becomes a cartoon depicting a resistant population decimated by giant arachnids.  The scene is reminiscent of similar treatment in the silly but entertaining send up of the Cthulhu Mythos, The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009), a film that it resembles in terms of tone and characters.  (This film was discussed in an earlier post, see Blasphemy!).   

In the end, what survives the marauding psychic horrors of Korrok, or the existential chaos of his hallucinogenic visions?  Perhaps friendship and a shared understanding of how the universe operates—in this dimension or another.  In the closing scene, David and John turn down a request to save another world. They walk nonchalantly away, wizened and unafraid.  Despite the chaos of perceived reality, they are still going to play around and have a good time.

If you have not already seen it, John Dies at the End is a lot of fun and well worth a look.      

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