Saturday, January 26, 2013

John Dies at the End - The Ultimate Cult Movie

Before I begin my review, there's something I would like you to consider: I am a huge fan of David Wong's literature. After reading both John Dies at the End and its sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don't Touch It, I consider him to be one of my favorite authors in general as well as my favorite literary author of all time. I love how his work in horror comedy can be both terrifying and laugh out loud funny, sometimes in the same breath, and I regularly read his articles on I enjoy his work so much that when I heard that Don Coscarelli would be making a movie adaptation, I got really excited at the prospect. As I have absolutely no experience with Coscarelli movies, I was also a little cautious about how it would turn out. I learned that he's good at making cult hits, or midnight movies, but I wasn't sure what that would mean for how he would adapt one of my favorite books.

Then I read an article about the movie in an issue of Rue Morgue that contained an interview with Coscarelli (the JDatE coverage was in fact the sole reason I bought that specific issue), a lot of which was detailing his decisions about the movie and how he decided to approach it along with David Wong's reactions to it. The more I read, the more confident I became about how this massive, addictive book could be reasonably translated to a 99 minute movie. This eventually lead to me viewing the movie today at the Nuart theater, my first ever exposure to a Don Coscarelli movie. As a fan of the original book, I ended up walking out of the screening incredibly satisfied by the end result.

The only place in L.A. that will show JDatE.
The basic premise behind John Dies at the End is that there are two paranormal detectives, David Wong (Chase Williamson) and John Cheese (Rob Mayes), who solve unusual cases around the town of [Undisclosed]. After a party, David is called up by John, who is acting much stranger than normal, and goes to his house. While there, David learns that his friend has a street drug known as Soy Sauce running through him, which is said to unlock the secrets of the universe. As he tries to help, he accidentally injects himself with a syringe containing some of the drug and finds it difficult to process what he's experiencing. From that point on, his life gets even more messed up than usual.

Understandably, some things had to be changed from the source book in order to make it work on the silver screen. From what I saw, they essentially took the first chunk of the book and fused it onto the ending, with some elements taken from the middle section to fill in the gaps. This movie is able to take whatever was in the book and spin it off into a new entity all on its own, which I feel actually helped it in the long run. Though there is a definite structure, that is to say a beginning, middle and end, it still retains the feeling from reading the book where it blends gore and laughs in a way that is unheard of in most movies today. Since I was already aware of some of the events beforehand, I couldn't help but feel giddy as I saw the movie come to life before me, even in places where it may seem inappropriate.

This doesn't mean I didn't feel the necessary emotions however. Even when I knew when something horrific was to go down, I still tried to brace myself for the actual event. I also found the framing device, wherein David is telling his story to reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), to have some genuinely twisty moments and an interesting way of portraying specific events. The plot also has some thought-provoking discussions on how the mind works and the way we perceive reality by posing questions we have probably never thought about before. For instance, how is it that your mind is able to align the events of a dream to coincide perfectly with those of the real world? It's truly fascinating how it is able to weave ideas of this sort into the plot to create a movie that not only entertains, but actually makes the viewer stop and think about something.

Chase Williamson as David Wong
Even though I really enjoyed the final cut of the film, I do acknowledge that the execution of the plot isn't entirely perfect. There are places where, after some truly insane actions, it can get a little slow, so the pacing isn't entirely consistent. Also, by cutting out entire subplots, there is at least one that feels like it wasn't entirely resolved and the third act of the movie could easily have been tied into the rest a little better, the threads not being entirely woven together right. I also feel that a couple of characters could have used a little more screen time, specifically Amy Sullivan (Fabianne Therese) and Dr. Marconi (Clancy Brown). Amy is the key to the light romantic element of the story, but she wasn't completely fleshed out and could have used a little more exposition. Marconi on the other hand is a funny character and is good with the supernatural portions, in which I think he should have been a little more involved. Now that I think about it, the movie doesn't entirely explain the events in a way that will make complete sense to those who have never read the book, instead opting to let the narrations provide commentary that will help the audience to fill in the blanks.

Of course I should also bring up just how much this film oozes with originality, especially since this came from the mind of the senior editor for Cracked. There are many monsters and supernatural phenomena in this movie, which all get the amount of exposition that is really necessary and could easily each have their own movie. From spider beings to the flying mustache of a ghost cop and even a man made entirely of meat, there is a lot that is presented that many other movies would only dare to dream up. Some of this originality is also present in the humor, which includes a visual gag of a door knob turning into male genitalia, as well as the gore. Granted there is significantly less gore than most modern horror movies, but what they do show (some in a special animated sequence) is rather unique, at least in where it comes from.

Then there's the special effects. Since this is, as Coscarelli would put it, an inexpensive movie, the special effects are actually pretty good for something made on such a small budget. Even when you can kind of tell it's fake, you can also tell that a lot of effort went into bringing the various monsters and such to life. In particular, there are a couple of moments of rather impressive stop motion that I think would probably have been the only way to bring certain things to life without depending on crappy CG. In a way, I feel that the movie was actually enhanced by the effects treatment and would probably have been worse off if it had a bigger budget for this.

Rob Mayes as John Cheese
As for the acting, I think they cast everyone really well. Though this is really the first time I've been aware of them, Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes gave really good performances that help bring their characters to life. They show real talent and their approach allowed David Wong and John Cheese to be either serious or funny when the time called for it. Paul Giamatti also played a good Arnie Blondestone, as the reporter has all the correct reactions down to a tee. Clancy Brown, which was kind of a surprise for me, also has a great presence in Marconi to the point where I feel like he really needed more screen time.

At the end of the day, John Dies at the End is a really great adaptation of an amazing novel. It manages to take the most essential elements of the book and become its own beast, with plenty of laughs to entertain even when it gets a little slower. While not perfect, I feel that this is an example of a successful transition from print to screen. Though I recommend to go see it, I want to stress that it really isn't for everyone (seriously, not everyone will like it). Fans of the book and/or Coscarelli movies will definitely get the most fun out of it, but it's reasonable for an outsider to have some reservations about it. For this reason I would consider this to be an instant cult classic, with its cult origins being handled by a cult director known for making cult movies. Even so, if you want to see something with a lot of originality that will actually get you thinking after the credits have rolled, try to go see this movie at least once. If you don't go to the theater to see this but someone you know offers to watch it with you down the road, say yes.

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