Tuesday, April 9, 2013

John Dies At The End (DVD)

Note: A Screener was provided for this review.
On an intellectual, or formal, or aesthetic level, or some kind of level somewhere, I understand that films based on novels must stand on their own, and should be judged separate from the source, and that a fidelity, any kind of fidelity, to that source is, or may be, irrelevant. I have understood this as a workable theory for some time now, but have repeatedly failed to put it into practice. If I'm listening to someone complain about a film adaptation that I liked, based on a book I haven't read, I'm able to make the case pretty forcefully. Similarly, on the rare occasions that I read the book after seeing the film, it's impossible to whip up the same kind of frustration over changes made, because no changes have been made. If I liked the film, and later see how many liberties were taken, my enjoyment is pretty much unaffected because I got to the film first. The book and film are safely independent of each other. But I can't apply that logic when coming at it from the other direction.
I wrote as mixed a review as I’ve ever written for John Dies At The End. Most of my ambivalence, I will freely admit, coming from the fact that the damn thing just isn’t the book. I am aware that this is both unfair to the makers of the film, and unhelpful to readers who haven’t read the book, but there we are. As Bill Ryan notes above in his infinite wisdom, knowing what you should be able to do and being able to do it are two different things.
Given a second viewing on DVD with expectations adjusted it is easier to appreciate John Dies At The End for what it is rather than getting hung up on what it isn’t. It’s a fun film, creative and anarchic, shot with a real sense of style and with a genial goofy sense of humor, but it strips away much of the melancholy, alienation and depth that made the book extraordinary. I’ve said before that Jason Pargin is the Douglas Adams of Horror. An author who uses parody and humor to somehow address the big questions with more finesse than most “straight” genre fiction. Fitting that John Dies At The End ended up rather on the level of the 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. A lively adaptation, made by people who clearly care about the source material that never quite manages to escape the nagging feeling that it misses the point entirely.
There is much to admire about Coscarelli version of John. My appreciation for Coscarelli’s screenplay, which manages to preserve much of the novel by recontextualizing it, has increased. The amount he was able to achieve on a clearly limited budget is downright impressive (though the animated scene sticks out even moreso as an ill advised experiment this time around). The cast, both the unknowns and the “ringers” like Doug Jones, Clancy Brown and Paul Giamatti get into the spirit admirably.  It is a damn good time at the frightshow. It just could have been more.
Interestingly enough the deleted scenes reveal that some of the darker material was filmed. And at least I finally have an answer for why the “Sheer Naked Horror of this place” monologue wasn’t included (ole Shitload couldn’t quite pull it off). But why Father Maraconi’s deliciously unsettling monologue was cut I have no idea.
In addition to the Deleted scenes. Magnolia has put together a good package to back up the film. With a commentary from Coscarelli and the principles, a few featurettes, including one of the effects that is refreshingly how to, and a candid interview with Giamatti. Disappointingly Pargin himself is nowhere to be found on the disc, not even as a talking head during the featurette, or a background voice in the commentary. It’s a puzzling and disappointing absence.  
I may remain slightly let down by John, but it’s a hard movie to be too mad at. Entertaining, creative, made with equal parts love and competency. If only more modern day genre films could say the same.

You can read more thoughts on the novel of John Dies At The End in my book Son Of Danse Macabre.

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