Tuesday, February 12, 2013

John Dies At The End

I wish I liked John Dies At The End a lot more than I do. Don’t get me wrong, on one level I’m absolutely gung ho. After all, this is an independently financed passion project from a great horror director (Don Coscarelli, believed in the project so much he sunk his own money into the work even before John was picked up by a major publisher) based on the signature novel of one of my favorite authors. To add another twist, the film is currently undertaking one of the most ambitious on demand releases since the start of that experiment. An attempt to build word of mouth, while simultaneously releasing the film in theaters. An attempt that seems to be working. (I myself had intended to hold off until a theatrical release, but the spirit is willing the flesh is yadayadayada, so I ended up making this my first "On Demand" film)

So at the very least you have a fun movie, that is a passion project from an honorable filmmaker, which will expose thousands of new fans to one of my favorite authors, all while proving viable a new form of distribution that will allow more interesting and risky genre cinema to be made.

And I can’t quite help but feel that it misses the point entirely.

Let’s back paddle a second here, if you haven’t read them the John books by “David Wong” (A pseudonym for Jason Pargin) does for horror what Douglas Adams does for Science Fiction. Following John and Dave, two low prospect men who take a drug called Soy Sauce which gives them incredible quantum insight into the universe, but also puts them in the sights of a malignant being beyond space and time. Through some bizarre alchemy he creates books that are simultaneously hilariously funny, genuinely frightening, and which tackle the big philosophical questions in between the dick jokes and exploding heads. The average page of Wong will make you laugh, cringe and then contemplate the implications of The Dunbar Number on humanity’s future. And all the while Wong races towards the apocalypse with gleeful abandon.

John Dies At The End, gets the gleeful abandon part but skips the rest. On one level, it’s actually quite smart as an adaptation. Wong wrote a book with a very particular structure, (it was originally written as three novellas released for free on the internet) and which would require a Michael Bay budget to pull off. Coscarelli skips both headaches, by reordering most scenes and repurposing others, creating what is basically a faithful adaptation in an entirely new framework (a new framework that as you might guess skips some of the more expensive bits). And if you think that’s easy to do I have a long sad story about Cloud Atlas to tell you. Only once, when a popular character from the novels is basically trotted out as “a special guest star” does this technique come off as as awkward.

What John lacks is not narrative faithfulness, nor exploding heads. It keeps the gleeful abandon of John Dies At The End, but it forgets that gleeful abandon is not the thing that made that work special in the first place. What made Wong’s novel stick is as about an accurate portrait of alienation as you’re going to find outside of a Camus novel, coupled with the work’s absolute fearlessness in tackling heady philosophical and existential dilemmas. I didn’t expect all of that to be in the film, but I didn’t expect none if it to be there either.

There is little to separate John Dies At The End from any number of films made by dudes who love Evil Dead 2 a whole lot. Now don’t get me wrong there’s nothing wrong with this, I am nothing if not a guy who loves Evil Dead 2 a whole lot, I’m considering having it chiseled on my tombstone. Taken on its own merits John Dies At The End is an innovative, creative slice of genre fun, with some great moments. If that’s what you’re looking for, and you’re feeling adventurous and have seven bucks in your pocket that you don’t know what to do with, I highly suggest you give the film a whirl on demand, or see it when its released in one of these new fangled “Theaters”. Just do yourself a favor, think of it as the trailer for the book.


If you want to hear more thoughts on The John novels, you can find them in Son Of Danse Macabre. Available from Amazon and Barnes And Noble.


le0pard13 said...

I'm very curious about this film, being a longtime Don Coscarelli fan and all, and will see it. You know I heard, but have not read any, of Wong's books (since I did pore over Son of Danse Macabre ;-)). I probably need to do so. Thanks, Bryce.

Unknown said...

Like le0pard13, I have not read the books either but the trailer for JOHN DIES AT THE END certainly has me intrigued and Coscarelli's name, coupled with Paul Giamatti's presence in this film has me edging closer to pulling the trigger for it On Demand.

Bryce Wilson said...

Guys I can say with literal certainty that the books are so far up your respective alleys that its not even funny.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I'm really curious to read the book also. I got the movie off of VOD. Plan to check it out tonight.

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing in such an encouraging post. I had a glimpse of it and couldn’t stop reading till I finished. I have already bookmarked you.

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