Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin (under the alias David Wong) first started writing his comic horror stories as a web-serial in 2001. They were so successful that he later re-edited them into the novel John Dies At The End, a sprawling tome that reads like what HP Lovecraft, Hunter S. Thompson and Douglas Adams would come up with together after a drunken Playstation and Kevin Smith movie marathon. Now, after a somewhat torturous set of release date issues, we have the film version by Phantasm director Don Coscarelli. While this isn’t a definitive take on the whole book’s story, it still captures the spirit, making this one of the most unique horror experiences of recent years.
David Wong (Chase Williamson) is waiting in the restaurant They China Food to talk with reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti). He has much to tell, about him and John’s (Rob Mayes) first encounter with the drug “Soy Sauce”. Of the things they became aware of ever since they took it. Of the impending invasion. Of the extra-dimensional horror Korrok. Most of all, he is there to make clear that absolutely none of the above is his fault, honest. Perhaps he’ll also mention that business with the meat monster for good measure…
If this film has any one problem it’s the same one as the novel. The plot doesn’t feel like an ongoing narrative, more a collection of horrific shaggy dog tales strung together (which is understandable given the story’s origins). As such, it’s kind of all over the place, with a sense of disconnect due to a few sections of the novel having had to be removed for time, pacing and budget issues. However, when a film has this much raw creativity on display, with so many ingenious set-pieces to offer, given both the cosmic horror threats and the time/reality-warping effects of the “soy sauce”, that can be forgiven.
The film lets you know right off the bat what the tone is through a surreal opening monologue making an old philosophical joke into a feast of grotesque imagery. The story, though having some very immature humour (there’s a joke early on about a door handle which makes this very clear), offers a lot of interesting points to think about. Many of the big ideas on display revolve around perceptions of reality, such as the question of whether one can realise they are going insane, when it would seem that the rest of the world is doing so instead. These points are delivered well and are what will really help the film stick in the mind. Well, that and the very impressive array of monster and creature effects, with an early showdown with a creature formed from the contents of a deep-freeze being a stand-out.
The real strength of the film is in the characters and actors. Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes make for a likeable pair of losers, who’s reactions to each other and their situations tell of a long friendship built upon stupid things John has gotten them into, only here taken to a new level. Many comparisons have been made with this and Ghostbusters, however a better one might be to Big Trouble in Little China. Both deal with main characters that normally would be comic relief not fully realising they aren’t the heroes in this story, and that they are completely ill-equipped for the bizarre situation at hand, with some far more qualified heroes on hand to bail them out. Here it comes in the form of Clancy Brown‘s extended cameo as Dr. Marconi, someone who’s so much more adept at paranormal investigation than David and John, he can do it over the phone. Paul Giamatti is also a lot of fun as reporter Arnie, and it’s clear he’s having a ball as he’s also a big fan of the book.
John Dies At The End is a very hard film to sum up because of its steadfast refusal to be pigeonholed into any particular category, it plays very much by its own rules. If you’re looking for something very off the beaten track in terms of horror, something to show that there’re still plenty of new ideas out there, definitely give this one a go. It’s also worth reading the original novel as well, as there’s a lot in there that even a multi-million dollar blockbuster would have a hard time pulling off. Finally, if this film does well, let’s hope Coscarelli can get to adapt the sequel, a novel with perhaps one of the best titles ever, This Book Is Full Of Spiders…. Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It!