Movie Review: John Dies At The End (2012, Dir. Don Coscarelli)

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When the trailer for John Dies at the End was released at the end of last year, I watched it three times in a row and then I cried a little. Sitting at a temporary desk at my current job, I was overcome with emotion, which was a wildly inappropriate thing for me to be doing. Yet this was far more important than appearances and my coworkers had already labeled me as really unforgivably weird. This three minute video wasn’t just a trailer: it was the actualization of images that had been  swirling around in my head, conjured up four times on four separate readings of my absolute favorite novel in the world, written by the editor in chief of Cracked.com, David Wong, and also called John Dies at the End. And oh my god, now it’s a movie by Don Coscarelli, a director from my favorite genre, who I already love.

I’ve seen it twice now, and this week it’s being released on VOD. This is a very difficult review for me to write, as I’m so invested in it, but I’ve been putting it off since September. There’s just so much feeling happening! How do I make it word

Alright, so, I wrote that fancy intro, but let me give you a little more background here as my history with the John Dies at the End (or JDATE for short) universe is actually pretty interesting. In my obsessive, excitable opinion.

I will put bullet points on this sloppy timeline so you can just skip over it if I am being really self-indulgent here.

  • Two years ago, Don Coscarelli does an interview talking about how excited he is that funding has just come through for his new project, a film adaptation of the novel John Dies at the End and much of this is a result of Paul Giamatti. I do a double take and declare that to be the best title I have ever heard, and that it must be read by me ASAP.
  • I read it. I experience a series of feelings I have not had since I was a kid. I neglect meals and social interaction. I am more concerned with reading than anything in the world. My boyfriend at the time invites me out to dinner, I say no so I can stay home and read. I go to my favorite bookstore, I find a copy of JDATE and I pick up where I left off from the book  I have at home. I uncharacteristically spend three days doing nothing but reading.
  • Over the next few months, I re-read JDATE three more times. The film premieres at Sundance, and plays a few other festivals. I follow the coverage obsessively. David Wong, the author, is gearing up with promotion for the sequel to the novel, This Book Is Full Of Spiders. They launch an alternate reality game (ARG) for fans, pulling in story elements of JDATE and aspects of the universe. I am so involved in this game that I spend every day playing, chatting with other fans, making new best friends, and shooting videos for it. When the ARG concludes, I place third out of a few hundred players.
  • John Dies at the End is picked up for distribution by Magnet. My JDATE buddies and I rejoice.
  • The Toronto International Film Festival announces they will be screening the film as part of the Midnight Madness series. I gather a group of fans from all over North America (Connecticut, New York, Colorado, and other parts of Canada) and we make the pilgrimage to Toronto to see the film together. It is a wild party, but as die-hard fans of the novel, we’re all somewhat perplexed by the film.

Ok, so here I go. I’ve gathered my thoughts. I’m gonna talk about it.

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John Dies at the End the novel and John Dies at the End the film are not the same thing. They are not even close. And although they are products of the same universe and share some of the same story, there are tonal differences at the heart of each thing that separate them from each other severely. .

The story is told from the point of view of David Wong, which is its own weird complex little thing. David Wong the pseudonym of the man who wrote the book from the point of view of David Wong the character who is played by Chase Williamson in the film. David’s best friend is the title character John, based on real-life writer John Cheese (also a pseudonym), played by the almost too good-looking Rob Mayes.

Dave and John are at a party when they separately encounter a parlor trick performing drug dealer going by the name Robert Marley. Marley introduces them to a weird drug known only as “soy sauce” which… well, John puts it best doing his Marley impression in the trailer: “it be opening doors to other worlds, man.” The living, moving drug are specks of a black liquid portal into who the hell knows, causing the user to bend time and space and then usually die.

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As this window into the darkness begins releasing monsters and other even stranger things into our realm of existence, Dave and John are pulled into an adventure. And these two losers have no choice but to try and save the world.

The film is pretty low budget, but it has the same whimsical Coscarelli charm as Bubba Ho-Tep. It actually even fits quite snugly into the Phantasm universe.

And aside from the total weirdness making the concept of acting nearly irrelevant, pretty much every performance is really entertaining, and it does make the characters memorable. Clancy Brown shows up and does karate and is just wildly awesome as the world famous magician Marconi. Paul Giamatti also gets some really fantastic scenes with Dave as reporter Arnie Blondestone. The one real exception to this is Amy, Dave’s love interest, whose role in the film has been expanded through more of the story, but diminished in a really disappointing way. The girl is pretty much present to carry out a specific plot point, and then a door slams in her face and she is abandoned without a second thought.

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I’ve heard many are having mixed feelings about Williamson’s portrayal of Wong, but personally I felt his performance was pitch perfect, and probably my favorite part of the film. Chase is young and a bit green, but all that does is amp up the awkwardness, and let’s be real here: David Wong (the character) is a sociopath. He murders people. He commits crimes. He unleashes uncontrollable evil creatures that will most likely destroy entire worlds. And he’s entirely self aware. He stops, analyzes his actions, and explains to us why he’s so terrible.

But I guess a problem arises when I mention that sociopath Dave is a creation of the book. Film-Dave is not as dark. In fact, very little of the darkness David Wong discusses in the text is represented in the film. The film is much lighter and more focused on the comedic aspects, leaving the dark, crushing nothingness of existence that Wong is in a constant mental battle with behind on the page.

Film-Dave and film-John are hysterical though. They are bro-buds and they dick around and adventure and are both really good looking and so attractive and fun. Did I mention I’m really into both of them? Their relationship drives the story, and it does so well. You love crazy Dave and goofball John. And the film is mostly about having fun with them, as it still this bizarro comedy that is unlike anything else.

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Iconic moments are carried over from the book, like the dick door knob or the bratwurst phone call, but the chronicle is shortened and simplified. In fact, there’s not much plot in the latter half of the film. It kinda just turns into a chaotic journey into a weird alternate world. A lot of the universal evils created by the book are dumbed down into beings the equivalent of video game bosses.

But hey, John Dies at the End, which is this unclassifiable, out-of-this-world novel has been successfully adapted into a movie. And that’s AMAZING! What more can you ask for?!

So, if you are not a hardcore fan of the novel, this film is going to be an insane horror-comedy. It’s unique enough to captivate and establish itself as a cult classic. It has a ton of rewatch value, it’s extremely entertaining. It’s imperfect, but if you are amused by a meat monster made of deer bits and sausage, are you really that concerned with perfection?

And if you are a hardcore fan of the novel, I’m gonna tell you a couple things (which are potentially spoilers? But not really): Molly is now named Bark Lee, there’s no Monster Dave, no Luxor, the two major story-arcs are awkwardly blended into one, and you won’t feel good about what happened to Amy’s role in the translation to film. Now you know the things that are going to upset you. Forget about them, and have a lot of fun. Because the film is just that: a lot of fun.

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