Is John Dies At The End one of 2013’s hidden horror gems?

John Dies at the End hasn't had a wide release, but that doesn't mean it's not brilliant, as James explains...

John Dies at the End begins with a question. Like a rather macabre, psychology A-level essay question, chief protagonist David Wong poses the brain teaser that if a man you shot, and hacked his head off with an axe, were to reappear with head stitched back on, claiming that the weapon you held in your hand was the axe that killed him, but only after wear and tear had caused you to separately replace both the axe blade and handle, would he be right? This sets the tone for a comedy (sort of) horror movie that’s way too smart to have received the utter ignoring it’s received so far.

The film first came onto my radar just over a year ago when someone on Twitter posted a link to a fairly empty IMDB page. But like director Don Coscarelli claimed happened to him when he saw the name in a “You bought this so you might like…” type e-mail, there was something about the title which made it stand out. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by author David Wong, real name Jason Pargin. To say that it’s a book which doesn’t immediately lend itself to a big screen adaptation is something of an understatement.

JDATE is a complex brew of weird trippyness. It’s told over a multi-yeared narrative, and takes place across several dimensional plains. Not always the most coherent piece of writing, the story is narrated by the aforementioned David Wong, a cynical and sarcastic slacker who peppers a tale of his and best friend John’s battle with drug-inspired, but very real, monsters with a great sense of anecdotal amusement.

The novel is a fantastic read. Just when you think it can’t get any more bizarre, Wong/Pargin manages to take it one step further, anchoring the story with characters that make the reader laugh. These are guys who, upon discovering another world on the other side of a door, dub this newfound place “Shit Narnia”. Even from that description, though, it should be obvious that adapting the film to the screen wouldn’t be easy. 

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It’s fair to say that there is a lot missing from the movie of John Dies at the End, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than trying to do the impossible and encompass all of the book’s wonderful weirdness, Don Coscarelli took the basic idea and framing story from Wong’s novel and put it through a heavy streamlining process. What is important though is that the director/writer has retained the feel and tone of the novel to produce one of 2013’s most fun 90 minutes of film.

Set in middle America, John Dies at the End is the story told by David Wong (Chase Williamson) to journalist Arnie Blondstone (Paul Giamatti) at a Chinese restaurant. David hopes that Arnie will publish the events that have befallen him and his friend John Cheese (Rob Mayes) since dabbling with a drug known as soy sauce that they acquired at a party from a Jamaican calling himself Robert Marley. The soy sauce allows those who take it to see and travel to other dimensions but also brings back things from these other worldly places. David and John, with occasional help from a variety of friends, become reluctant monster fighters against an inter-dimensional conspiracy that threatens to wipe out mankind.

Given that Coscarelli’s directorial CV includes the Phantasm series and Bruce Campbell in Elvis vs a mummy cult hit Bubba Ho Tep, John Dies at the End was always in pretty safe hands when it came to not diluting the bizarreness of this tale. Some long-term fans of the book have complained that the film leaves out too much and could have included some more major plot points with an extended runtime, but I think Coscarelli got it right. Including everything from the novel was never an option, and if the director had included a few more parts of the detailed story then there’d still be the same cries. The result Coscarelli delivered may skirt over one or two points but it’s hard to imagine a more fun version.

Crucially, the script that Coscarelli wrote retained the humour of John Dies at the End – the humour that comes from the characters’ near ambivalent amusement in response to events, and the downright oddness of everything going on around them. The film mixes the weird with the everyday to produce a feeling that having a conversation with your best friend via a hot dog you just bought is the most ordinary thing in the world. David and John never freak out at what’s happening to them but rather treat it as a slight inconvenience that they want to get out of the way, like you would the weekly trip to the supermarket.

The dialogue in the film is extremely smart and very descriptive but it wouldn’t work half as well if Coscarelli hadn’t cast his film so well. The most recognisable member of the cast is Paul Giamatti, who was a big fan of the novel. Although when I read the novel, I imagined Arnie Blondstone to look like Tom Wilkinson, Giamatti fills the role of the sceptical reporter who finds himself barely knowing what to believe very well. His chemistry with Chase Williamson’s David in their restaurant scenes is excellent. Coscarelli has produced these scenes, which are essentially two guys sat at a table talking, in a way that befits the strangeness of the film. Often shot with close ups or from low angles, it really manages to convey the increasing nervousness of Arnie as David talks.

On first glance, Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes appear to have been cast as David and John to resemble those two blokes from Supernatural with a view to JDATE being a ‘good looking boys combat monsters type’ movie. Any notion of that is soon quashed when we see David and John together for the first time on a mission to help a girl who claims her undead boyfriend is living in her basement.

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Like if the Ghostbusters were only in it to meet pretty girls, Williamson and Mayes have plenty of sarcastic banter and their partnership is a very enjoyable. The two leads are largely unknown, and that works in the favour of the characters they’re playing as John and David are nobodies. They aren’t the wallflowers who bloom into being the heroes when called upon. They’re just two guys in a messed up situation, with aspirations of being nothing else.

Hellboy’s Doug Jones has a memorable small role as a man named Roger North, an inter-dimensional traveller. He’s a familiar face to see in a movie of this type. North is like a tourist to our dimension. Just as we made find some of the customs in foreign countries we visit amusing, North finds the very nature of our communication, via speech, amusing in the same manner.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the film’s casting though is the inclusion of cult film favourite Clancy Brown as Dr. Albert Marconi, a Las Vegas television psychic who’s in the same monster battling profession as David and John. Although he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, Brown brings his usual presence to the role. The Marconi character is much more prevalent in the novel but it’s easy to see why he has reduced role for the film. As brilliant as it would have been to see the spectacular showdown that occurs during one of his Las Vegas performances, the movie’s budget clearly wouldn’t have stretched to recreating it.

John Dies at the End hasn’t had a huge amount of money spent on it. While this has stopped Coscarelli from reproducing some of the stories vast and wild battles, it has worked in favour of the film retaining the D.I.Y. feel. Had the film been produced with all the lashings of a blockbuster then it’s arguable that the all important tone would have been lost.

That said, it’s hard to imagine a studio going for John Dies at the End as a tent pole movie. The story is just too out there for a mainstream audience to take to. It’s the kind of film that’s always been destined for cult status, much like Donnie Darko just over ten years ago. The release schedule the film has enjoyed so far has made this status seem undeniable. The film was a festival darling during 2012 before being made available on demand to the US in January, followed by a small cinematic run.

On this side of the pond, JDATE opened on 22nd March. I don’t know exactly how widely its cinematic scope reached but I do know that nowhere in Wales showed it, though it had turned up at the Abertoir film festival in Aberystwyth the previous November. The film had become hard to track down until an unlikely lifeline was thrown its way with the announcement of a DVD release. In a move in keeping with the bizarreness of the movie, the film has been made available exclusively via Asda!

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This was great news though as John Dies at the End may now have a chance of finding the audience it so richly deserves. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but then when crossing the two genres of horror and comedy, which are notoriously the most divisive, a film is always going to hit with some and miss with others.

If you can get on board with the film’s treasure trove of wit, weirdness and thrills then you’ll likely have a good time with it. Just stay away from the soy sauce, you never know what that was lurking in the corner of your eye…