I happen to be a pretty huge fan of Jason “David Wong” Pargin, from way back in his late 90’s days as owner of pointlesswasteoftime.com. As a result, I’m one of a few who got to read his original versions of “JDATE” when he put it up online in instalments long before there were any hints that it could even be published, let alone be adapted into a movie format. I simply adore both John Dies At The End and its recent sequel This Book Is Full Of Spiders (Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It) as classic horror/dark humour novels, so anything I have to say about Dan Coscarelli’s adaptation must be viewed in respect to that.
John Dies At The End see’s Dave (Chase Williamson) narrate his story to inquisitive journalist Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a story about himself, his titular slacker friend John (Rob Mayes) and their experiences after coming into contact with a mysterious black substance (dubbed “soy sauce”), which has the power to open up perception of a world beyond our own. From there comes battles with meat monsters, conversations through a hot dog and a journey to a place described as “Eyes Wide Shut World” (or as it was called in the book “Shit-Narnia”).
This is a good story, with some wonderful characters, and I generally liked how they presented Pargin/Wong’s vision on screen. This is a good universe that Wong has created, a supernatural horror story that flawlessly mixes in a healthy dose of black humour when required. From the opening prologue of the riddle that reveals “the awful secret behind the universe” to the alternate universe piss-take of the epilogue, John Dies At The End is a very enjoyably cinematic experience. Enough is done in the first half of the movie to make you care about the main character, and the set-up as a continuing flashback was very effective to create tension between Dave and Arnie.
This is a fascinating little piece of fiction, and I generally liked the way it was depicted on screen. Those fans of the book might be a little jarred though, because the choice of what to cut (and it was inevitable that much would be cut to satisfy a less than 100 minute running time) does seem a little odd. John Dies At The End, the book, is somewhat episodic in nature, and the movie keeps that, but only the first third and last quarter of the book is actually adapted here, the two widely different axis’s flung together in an awkward manner. I’m at a loss to really comment on how someone with no experience with the book would view that, but I personally found it just a little off, like something wasn’t quite right with the flow of the movie. The entire thing feels a little rushed I suppose, as a certain amount of time is taken with establishing the universe and the situation, only for a rapid movement towards a finale, with a lot of elements from the book shoe-horned in when they didn’t really need to.
The pacing is actually quite good for what it is, it’s just very clear that there is a substantial chunk of story missing from the point where John and Dave are caught by the “Shitload” character, to the passage towards “Shit-Narnia”. But Coscarelli isn’t making a page-for-page replication (nor should he) and I think he’s done a fine job of boiling the overall plot of John Dies At The End down to a workable degree while retaining its essence. In fact, maybe he should have gone a little bit further, because there are just a few things in the movie that don’t quite fit in the reduced format.
Notably, the characters of Robert North (Doug Jones) and Marconi (Keith Clancy) are included here, even though in the adapted form of John Dies At The End they serve little practical purpose to the plot at large. North especially seems to have been relegated to the role of “creepy guy” and I’m really not sure why he was even there at the finale other than as a cipher for a few lines of exposition. Marconi is a bit more important, even just as a set-piece style character, but generally he seemed really confusing and random within the films confines. His big moment from the book is not included. In the movie he’s the kind of character that leaves you with more questions than answers I mean, and not in a good way.
That all might sound a bit too complaining, and I want to re-iterate that I enjoyed the story overall. This is a great little point between the more unreal/light heartedness that you frequently see in stuff like Buffy and the forced grittiness of things like Supernatural. John Dies At The End and its story have found a niche from which to tell a really enthralling horror story.
Williamson does a decent job as Dave, I think he captured what my internal vision of the character was to an acceptable degree. In truth his range is actually limited in many respects to that of a reaction man, constantly alarmed and shocked at the things that are now happening all around him. He pulls this surprised face at least 20 times in the movie, usually just when John has said/done something crazy or impossible. That actually fits Wong’s story though, where Dave is the straight man who just has to react to all of the strangeness that has burst into his life, and Williamson carries that off without being too annoyingly repetitive. His inner monologue is where he really shines brightest through, a deadpan serious/creepy narrating of the things he sees’s around him, from which so much of the humour and horror is derived. And Williamson really has to be good, because so much of the focus is on him and him alone.
Pretty much the entire rest of the cast is dwarfed for screentime in comparison, but I wouldn’t really call that a flaw, since it matches the source material. I suppose others could have gotten more time in front of the camera, but Coscarelli choose to take his 99 minutes and put it firmly on the shoulders of Williamson and the Dave character instead of diluting it between a wider cast. Dave is easily the best and most interesting character, with a good actor stepping into the role, so it works.
That doesn’t mean you can’t miss a bit more of Mayes as John. He does just fine, he’s just not in the movie for a very large part of it. The John character is a total caricature of a human being in many respects, the “wacky” sidekick to Dave’s straight man. Where Dave reacts with alarm to the supernatural, John simply embraces it. Mayes brings that sort of cartoonish energy to John, but he is very limited in what he gets to do. Despite his place in the title, John is actually somewhat of a minor character here, little more than a foil for Dave, and what little growth as a character he shows in the books is missing. The brilliant chapter “The Story As Told By John” is also absent, and there is little chance of character evolution for such a creation, designed more for the oddball humour and slacker appeal.
Paul Giamatti is probably the most accomplished guy in the production, and he does great as Arnie Blondstone, even if nearly all of his scenes take place in one Chinese restaurant booth. His Arnie is an individual at pains to disguise his genuine curiosity in Dave’s story, and his interaction with Williamson does enough to keep things moving along in the frequent breaks from the action that take us back to their conversation. The revelation at the films conclusion is masterfully done, and Giamatti is actually rather good at portraying the mounting horror of a man whose life is stolen right before his eyes.
I think everyone else is so limited as to be little noted though. Clancy is vague and mysterious as Marconi. Glynn Turman is somewhat chilling and effective as the traumatised Detective Appleton. Doug Jones is creepy and little else as Robert North.
But of all the supporting cast I was probably most disappointed with Fabianne Therese as Amy, the only female character of note and the love-interest for Dave. The character is fairly gutted for the movie, changing from a very tender, sympathetic, tragically broken individual from the book, to a one-note figure here, there to open a door near the conclusion and kiss the hero when he comes back. Amy was a hell of a lot more than that in the book, and she’s taken the brunt of the cutting damage here. I suppose I shouldn’t take it out on Therese, she just gets so very little to do, but I wasn’t especially impressed with what she little she did. To put it another way, one of the key aspects of the character in the book is her fear/misery at being defined as “the girl with one hand” and Wong did a great job of making her far more than that with her actions and dialogue. Unfortunately, for the movie version, she really is little more than “the girl with one hand” and that’s a shame, because she’s one of the better female characters I’ve ever read.
Visually it’s quite good. A lot of close-up, personal shots throughout, with most of the film taking place indoors and in small spaces. Coscarelli captures a certain air of unreality in the Chinese restaurant booth with the soft colours and lonely atmosphere. For a very dark story, there is a very good use of colour here. The production is clearly a little cash-strapped when it comes to filling in the details on other shots – the police station, Dave’s house, the mall – and the outdoors stuff is frequently too dark and unconvincing – like the metal concert early on – but that doesn’t detract too much.
Of special note is a horrific animated sequence in “Shit-Narnia”, an incredibly unnerving look at a bloody scene, which worked really, really well. The special effects work is actually somewhat impressive given that tiny budget, and perhaps only for the finale scenes featuring Korrock did it really begin to get noticeable. JDATE doesn’t need spectacular CGI monstrosities to get the point across, so nothing is being missed here. The few creature models are rudimentary, but horrible enough to get past the simple movements. The gore is actually less prevalent than I would have expected given the book and the director’s past projects, and shouldn’t put too many people off.
Of course, it is in wordplay that John Dies At The End shines. This is a flowing, funny, engaging script, that goes a long way towards papering over whatever flaws I may have mentioned earlier. The spirit of the now sadly departed pwot.com – long since merged into the comedy behemoth of Cracked.com – is a very specific brand of comedy. It’s a darkly satirical, overblown kind, somewhat hard to describe, but I know that it has appealed to me ever since I first happened upon the site way back in the days of dial-up. John Dies At The End is the prime example of it, of a sort of humour that appeals most to the 18-25 demographic of internet surfers. I don’t mean juvenile or crass, though there are examples of that throughout, simply irreverent, pop-culture specific, very sarcastic comedy, the kind of comedy that swings from penis jokes (“This door cannot be opened”) to puns (“Prepare to meat your doom!”) very quickly and without detriment to the laughter.
And on the other side of things, the inner monologue of David Wong does as much, if not more, as visuals things to get the horror atmosphere right. The guy has a gift with words and soliloquy’s, and there are too many clever moments to count in the course of the movie. Simple things like drawing a line between an opening discussion on spirits ability to look different to different people to the finale where the horror of such a situation dawns on Arnie is what I’m talking about, or the “ghost hand” element of the Amy character. It’s a very clever script, the kind that makes you laugh, yelp and think all in the same 99 minute period.
The soundtrack is pretty much a write-off. Something has to take a hit here, and no real expense has been put into the music, beyond an acceptable rendition of John Cheese’s “Camel Holocaust”. Basic horror tones and themes pervade, along with a healthy dose of electric guitar on occasion.
On themes, I suppose the pervading one is horror or at least John Dies At The End’s specific brand of horror. This is not one of terrible monsters or howling ghosts, but a much more insidious kind. Horror in John Dies At The End is a mental thing, of fear being brought on by a state of being, of a sudden realisation of just how tiny and insignificant one is in comparison to the vastness of the universe. One of the repeating motif’s of John Dies At The End (and its equal) is the horrific power that small things can have, from the soy sauce, to the infectious bugs that swarm out of Shitload and the Detective, to John and Dave when faced with Korrok. The idea of never being able to adjust to life properly again after infection by “the sauce” is a worse kind of fear than anything that the meat monster of the opening can come up and that comes with the frustration of knowing that there is nothing you can do about it, that any attempt Dave makes to bring his story to the world at large is doomed to failure – and that others will pay the price for such an attempt.
Then there is just living in combination with the theme of responsibility. One of the great hooks of John Dies At The End is that it is a very good everyman story. Dave and John are, for the most part, unexceptional, boring people, whose lives, in the grand scheme of things, don’t matter that much at all. When thrust into this adventure of supernatural proportions, they’re reaction is that of ordinary men. Dave especially views the whole thing as a distraction from his normal life, and treats the problems of monsters and demons with the same straightforward nature that he treats video rental returns at his job. Dave becomes responsible for fighting many of the horrible creatures that have come into his life, and does not shirk that responsibility, though he does complain about it a lot. John embraces it more fully, like someone without the deep-seeded cares of Dave, but there is this ever-present sense of just two guys trying to do the best that they can in a world not of their making.
This ties into the further theme of heroism, at least the kind of heroism that Pargin/Wong espouses. That isn’t the macho action hero type of heroism, but a more ordinary and much more courageous kind, of two guys who would rather be doing anything else, stumble into the crisis, and just do the best that they can. Dave and John aren’t good heroes because they slay the dragon and get the girl, they’re good heroes because they’re just normal, relatable guys who simply decide to stay involved, have enough courage to not run away shrieking in terror, and get the job done. That very ordinary brand of heroism is punctuated by the closing revelation that it was the dog who was the pre-destined hero, and that the two friends were merely along to help her out. Coscarelli indulges a little bit of an action hero desire in the conclusion, but it is in very much an amateurish, trying to make do style, with home-made flamethrowers and baseball bats.
And lastly, there is just plain old friendship. Those who have been following the writings and history of Jason “David Wong” Pargin and Mack “John Cheese” Leighty for as long as they have been writing will recognise that innate bond and friendship between two guys who stick with each other through thick and thin. Dave’s willingness to put up with a lot of nonsense from John may seem strange to some, but belies a deeper friendship than that represented in just 99 minutes of film. There’s something appealing in that, far more than the classic tale of a solitary hero. I suppose something akin to Supernatural, only without the misplaced seriousness. The subversion of the traditional hero archetype in line with this core friendship is shown beautifully in the final scene, as John and Dave turn away from an opportunity to be the saviours of an alternate earth wracked with crisis, doing so with smiles on their faces.
John Dies At The End is a enjoyable movie for its horror, its humour and for the fact that it is a simple independent production that succeeds very admirably. Along with the books, it comes fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Magnet Releasing).