John Dies at the End (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
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John Dies at the End (2013)

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Lo the desolationAndrew INDIFFERENCE BannerI started to get bored halfway through John Dies at the End when it became clear that this is the sort of film where anything can happen.  One of the heroes  could open a door in a restaurant and find a dug path through a sylvan glen leading to a statue of Benedict Arnold adorned with perfume and lotus blossoms.  That sort of sporadic inspiration leads to a number of feverishly brilliant sequences in the movie but also sets the tone the end game.  If you've created a world where anything can happen it doesn't much matter that anything happens.

John Dies at the End (JDatE) is adapted from the book of the same name written by David Wong, a pseudonym for Jason Pargin, a longtime writer for that sporadically interesting time-sink  Whether the film is an accurate representation of the book I cannot say, but I can see how many of the events of the film would have played much better in a feverish mess on the page.  The film version is written for the screen and directed by longtime horror cult favorite Don Coscarelli, whose Phantasm films are a good way to kill a boring weekend and Bubba Ho-tep a wonderfully earnest take on several conspiracy theories meshed into a mummy film.

Coscarelli is a great choice to adapt this material but given how much he clearly puts his heart into his projects I don't know if he was the best.  There are moments when the sardonic dialogue between the leads conflicts too much with the implacable logic of the horrific scenarios that sprinkle the film.  Then we end up with one scene explaining what's going on, and once the universe has upended itself since anything can happen, another scene explaining the changes even if it's a matter of now talking psychically through a dog instead of a bratwurst.  This is the result of someone so in love with the material that he wants to make sure we get all of it, and not making the best film in the process.

Many of the moments where Soy Sauce is ingested recall scenes from John Carpenter's The Thing.

Many of the moments where Soy Sauce is ingested recall scenes from John Carpenter's The Thing.

The strongest scenes play right off the bat and toward the middle when things really start to get weird.  The opening seems like it's setting the tone for steady non-sequitur humor where Coscarelli quickly sets an impartial camera between a murder of a neo-Nazi, a space slug, the Nazi's zombie, and a poor hardware employee who grows increasingly nervous at the man who brings in a bloodied axe for repair.  The scene wraps up in a question the brilliantly shows the film to be dabbling in pure nightmare logic that as disconnected as the dialogue and images seem, there's a strange connection behind everything.

Sadly, that does not pass into the film proper.  The introduction serves more as an example of the style than any real storytelling strength when the plot starts.  The events of JDatE are told in flashback by the fictional David Wong (Chase Williamson), in a hyperreality twist this is a separate fictional Wong and not the real-life Wong pseudonym, and a disgraced journalist played by Paul Giamatti.  Wong is here to recount the strange happenings of a drug called Soy Sauce that seems alive and grants what are essentially psychic powers, an invasion slowly playing out on earth by an alien body, parallel dimensions that have their own designs, and a number of other drug-inspired detours.

This scene showcases just how great and horrible the casting decisions were.  Giamatti, as he has shown in other films like Shoot 'em Up and Cold Souls, is perfectly attuned to this kind of earnest madness.  His increasing enthusiasm and wide-eyed excitement over the story of the century saves an otherwise redundant framing device (the run-time feels a bit padded by seeing the actions then watch someone recount them).  But Williamson, and his co-lead Rob Mayes as the titular John, are not very well suited to the material.  Their performances are tuned in to treating the chaos around them as a minor annoyance in the case of Williamson, or as an extended surfer joke in the case of Mayes.

Clancy Brown is hilarious as a man who presents himself as a Siegfried and Roy master of illusion but is really a fount of incredible power.

Clancy Brown is hilarious as a man who presents himself as a Siegfried and Roy master of illusion but is really a humble fount of incredible power.

Considering we spend the entire film with one or the other it makes the already jarring tone shifts that much worse.  What's so great about Giamatti's performance, joined eventually by a hilarious Clancy Brown and the always wonderful Doug Jones, is that he's willing to tune-in to the madness and adjusts his performance accordingly.  The worst parts of the film adopt the energy of Williamson and Mayes, leading to those explanation sequences and several other flat moments where they're lifeless compared to the burning chaos around them.  There are some other problems with the movie, especially one brief character who embodies some reoccurring racial stereotypes in films, and the madness becomes redundant.

But the film still finds the right combination of insanity and humor many times.  In addition to that fantastic introduction there's a fight scene with a moustachioed policeman that only Wong can see involving severed arms and strongly independent facial hair.  There's also a quiet film-length gag involving a lost dog that has fun playing with the instinctive empathy we have towards canines and ends in a logical explosion.  These are moments that will stay with me in splatstick conversations to come.

Even with my disappointment, no film with Doug Jones grinning with a mutant slug at hand is all that bad.

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John Dies at the End - TailJohn Dies at the End (2013)

Written for the screen and directed by Don Coscarelli.
Starring Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, and Paul Giamatti.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Cliched as it may sound, the book was better, so much so that the points where the film starts to slump are pretty much the moments where they deviated from the novel. They’re also the points where it feels like the film was running out of time and/or money. That isn’t to say that the book is the end-all, be-all of fiction, but there’s a major plot point involving Dave that I really wish would have made it into the film.

    It’s also a shame a lot of Dave and John’s acting seems so hit and miss, because there are sequences where they really seem to click as characters, and others where they completely fall flat. Dave’s narration being a major one. I wish there was even the slightest chance for a sequel, as there’s a good half a novel of material left to use, but as a whole, I think it did nail the overall tone of the novel and it manages to walk the line between humor and horror better than most.

  2. Tangentially related: If you liked the “soy sauce” effects and you weren’t already away, it was created with ferrofluid. Here’s a how-to:

    • Ferrofluids are very cool and given the way the film eschewed CGI as much as possible a really good choice to make the Soy Sauce seem to dangerous and alien. Regarding the first, it’s weird that they would have deviated at all since it already displayed such a strong willingness to go down the rabbit hole and the film was born with an already small and specific audience in mind. Still, it was all a damn good try.

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