John Dies at the End: A Fun, if “Adaptation-y”, Way to Start the New Year

Ok, first review of the year. Let’s set the tone right, something that sets the year off on a proper note. So this week I’m taking a look at John Dies at the End, a quirky indie horror/comedy featuring exploding eyeballs, decapitations and Clancy “Happy Halloween, ladies” Brown. Sorry, I meant a proper tone for me. Just to clarify. What did you expect, tea and biscuits?

The flick is based off the novel of the same name by David Wong, one of those self-consciously quirky books you’re constantly being suggested to by on Amazon because you looked at Ben Croshaw’s Mogworld once. Look, just because I enjoy one off the cuff, irreverent bit of mid-20s literature doesn’t mean that’s all I read, Amazon, just like I’m not interested in your seedier than usual selection of pornos because I thought Fix my Pipes with your Hot Sausage was an instructional film on low cost plumbing solutions.

john-dies-at-the-end-posterI was pretty dubious about the film as well, partly owing to that whole Hobbit debacle increasing my usual cynicism about book adaptations, but my brow raised an inch in interested when I saw the IMDB page. Directed by Don Coscarelli? The same Don Coscarelli who directed Bubba Ho-Tep and The Beastmaster? And featuring such B-and occasionally A-level talents as Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown and Doug Jones? “Flog me for doubting you movie, let’s get started” I said.

But those of you hoping this was all an amusing lead-in to me saying “And then it sucked so hard my kidney erupted in rage” will be disappointed, because it’s not bad. Needs some work, but definitely worth looking at. Our hero is Dave, a normal everyday 20-something who after a party accidentally doses himself with a mysterious drug called “Soy Sauce” because isn’t that just a wacky name for a drug, which either kills you or grants you the ability to see and interact with the spirit world. Along with his similarly empowered friend John (who SPOILER ALERT doesn’t actually die at the end, so I guess the title is just the author screwing with us) he embarks on the usual epic quest involving ghosts, demons and a giant Lovecraftian monster/biocomputer in an alternate reality, with the framing story of Dave recounting all this to Giamatti’s (presumably tabloid) newspaper reporter.

The first thing I noticed that further intensified my massive hard-on initiated by Coscarelli’s name into something capable of smashing concrete blocks in half and causing some embarrassment when my mum walked in to the room was the copious use of practical special effects. As I’ve been known to say before, I’m not a fan of this new-fangled computer imagery, and being the fairly low-budget indie genre fare it was, I expected the movie to be rife with the kind of low-res CGI that would embarrass a Japanese superhero show.

But imagine my surprise when the demon made entirely out of refrigerated meat that shows up in the first twenty minutes or so is done entirely with practical effects, right down to him assembling out of the freezer like the freaking T-1000. Only made of steaks and lambchops and stuff. Do realize how much commitment, balls and outright insanity it takes to say “yeah, we’re gonna have a sequence where a bunch of frozen meat products assemble into a humanoid monster. And it’ll be all practical effects.”? Right from that point the movie couldn’t have had my attention more had it addressed me by name and described my last two sexual encounters.JOHN-DIES-AT-THE-END

However the problem I ran into shortly thereafter, which yanked my enjoyment out from under me was that the script does have some problems, mostly a case of that same problem most novel adaptations have when they aren’t adding things to the story that stop the enjoyment dead, and yes I’m still sore about that Peter Jackson, why do you ask? No, what John Dies at the End has is that nagging feeling that something’s being left out. Some exposition here, some character back story there. Who exactly IS Doug Jones, movie? An angel, a mystic, an out of work creature suit actor? Some concepts are vaguely defined at best and Deus ex Machinas at worst. It also feels a bit maddeningly open-ended, almost like it’s trying to set up the plot for a tv show where Dave and John have whacky paranormal/extra-dimensional adventures like Supernatural only not starring two impossibly handsome, well dressed homunculi. Similarly the second act arrival and dispatching of a villain called “Shitload”, a terribly clever take on Legion from Exorcist 3 seems a bit half-baked (Still not gonna make that joke).

That aside, the movie is almost better than it deserves to be. I have no idea how Coscarelli managed to get Paul Giamatti on board, maybe he blackmailed him with some nude photos or something, but if I found nude photos of Paul Giamatti I’d be more concerned with cleansing my eyeballs with bleach and fire. It’s not as though he has a particularly large role either, so if it IS blackmail I’d say he didn’t get his money’s worth.

The script moves along at a decent speed, ever letting us get too bored or bogging us down with too much exposition, although it does seem to have too much fun pulling out phrases like “Shopping mall of the dead” just to remind us of how whacky and clever it is, though it doesn’t come close to the level of overbearing pride in its own cleverness that killed Detention for me.

But apart from these fairly minor faults, I did still enjoy John Dies at the End, it’s clever and well-executed and doesn’t get too smug about itself. The script could have used a good once-over, but so could my beard and people say I look like a hobo only about half the time.

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