Reporting Jonathon Sharp
John Dies at the End is hard to follow, and to enjoy.
But it does have one redeeming feature: a great title.
The movie, based on a Jason Pargin novel of the same name, suffers from a story it can’t quite control. In it, two college-aged slackers do battle with inter-dimensional beings after having their bloodstreams tainted by a strange street drug known only as “the soy sauce.”
This black substance, which can grow insect wings and has a will like Tolkien’s ring, allows its users to communicate with the dead, predict the future, negotiate the fabric of space-time, and interpret dreams.
When heroes David (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) take the sauce, they find it “chooses them” to be part of a scheme to destroy a murderous animal super computer in another dimension with the help of a dog and a TV magician.
Writer/director Don Coscarelli – known for his horror films Bubba Ho-Tep and Phantasm – treats the narrative in John Dies as a vehicle to play with humor and horror. Unfortunately, most of the gags fall flat. The visual ones – doorknobs that morph into penises, mustaches that flutter off faces – fair best. The multiple masturbation jokes, however, clang, clang, clang, clang, clang – like a chrome dildo dropped down a spiral staircase.
The story, which is a truncated version of the book’s narrative, jumps from past to present, dimension to dimension so frequently and seemingly flippantly that it’s difficult for the viewer to get a handle on it. This is troubling because the movie is framed around David’s attempt to tell his tale to a reporter named Arnie (Paul Giamatti).
The newsman listens as David’s yarn goes on and on, involving mutant slugs, police investigations, bratwurst cell phones, a Jamaican spiritualist named Robert Marley, and an amputee love interest.
But despite offering a smorgasbord of misadventures, John Dies doesn’t offer something key — development. There’s no reason to cheer on Dave and John, or stay interested in their antics. Stuff just happens, and the heroes either react in horror or stale sarcasm.
To those who loved the novel, enjoy the movie. To those in immediate need of an inter-dimensional cinematic experience, embark on this one as though you were watching a film based on a TV series: if there’s stuff that doesn’t add up, just roll with it.
The movie is playing for one week at the Lagoon Cinema.
Below are parts of a conversation I had with Coscarelli, the film’s director. While I wasn’t exactly a fan of “John Dies at the End,” the story of how it was made is quite good: A robot gave Coscarelli the inspiration.
How did you get involved with “John Dies” at the End?
I got an email from a robot at Amazon.com. And it showed up in my email inbox one day. And this email – you know you’ve probably seen these things before if you ever buy something from Amazon – it says if you like this last zombie book that you bought…you’re going to love “John Dies at the End”…I read it and thought, This could really…make for a good movie.
It turned out that the Amazon robot was right. Weird how that works…I guess that’s the first movie decided by a robot.
Have you gotten any other really good [robot] suggestions?
Not so much. I was noticing the other day that ever since I bought a Kindle I don’t get suggestions anymore. It’s only when I’m buying the physical books that I was getting them.
I read somewhere that it was your dream job to direct a time-travel movie. Did that sort of come true with making “John Dies at the End?”
No…While it’s a dimensional travel movie – with a lot of strange bizarre stuff – I would still like to do a traditional time travel movie. You know I love films like that, and I really enjoyed that recent film “Looper.”
The story in “John Dies” is kind of…all over the place. Tell me about how you juggled that complexity and that weirdness.
Wow…when you put it that way. It was an immense challenge, because the book and the script are all over the place – and in a good way. But the trick was to hope to not lose the audience. On a daily basis I was really challenged trying to decide if any of these really amazing, imaginative ideas were going to force the movie train off the tracks…Sometimes I worried we would go too far.
‘Cause you know, what we’re talking about [are] elements that are so far above and beyond any other movie. We’ve got a monster made out of freezer meat; we’ve got this sentient drug from another dimension that chooses you; we’ve got a talking dog; we’ve got a bratwurst cell phone. I mean it’s like every day I’m shooting a scene and thinking: “Wow, we lost the audience here. I’ve got to rein it back a little bit.”
I will tell you that I did spend a long time editing the movie and trying to fine tune it. I was really working over the actor’s performances so that the audience would stay with them – so they’d believe it, so they’d laugh and not, you know, revolt on us.
Who do you think is the audience when you imagine people watching this movie?
I would like to think it’s the highest one percent of intelligence; it’s the smartest people who are really loving the movie.
The book, going back on it, I think it can appeal to a very broad audience; because it is wildly adventurous.
There are people out there…that if the [book’s] story isn’t completely homogenized and laid out on a platter, they reject movies. We know the movie is not for them. It’s got elements in it that are so…there’s the fantasy fans; there’s the sci-fi fans; there’s the horror fans; there’s some action; at the center we’ve got two slacker guys; we got, you know, the “Clerks” and the “Bill & Ted” audience; and then we got the folks who like to watch movies baked. It’s pretty broad. We’ve got a nice dog in the movie, so there’s an animal component. So I think that…some folks might, you know, could reject it out of hand. I think if people approach it with an open mind it could appeal to a lot of folks.
I think the title helps to draw people in.
You’re so right. I forgot to say that when I got the email from the robot. It was probably the greatest title in fiction or movies I’ve ever heard of. You know, I just loved that title.
I haven’t read the book, but did you work with the author at all?
His…name is Jason Pargin. He’s a writer from central Illinois. First time author, first time novelist. And you have to give him credit in that he, basically, established a new paradigm in publishing in that he started writing this work as a series of chapters. And then he started publishing them on this comedy website…and pretty soon he had a massive fanbase of people reading this material. Something like 50,000 people had read the book in the online, for free, format. It had just gotten a publisher at a company called Permuted Press, a small market publisher. That’s when that robot sent me the email and I got that copy and I read it.
Unfortunately I did not collaborate with him on the screenplay. He had just taken on a job…he’s the senior editor at Cracked.com, which is one of the top Internet comedy sites.
In any case, I did discuss with him on how to adapt his novel and how to cut it down from 350 pages to 100 pages.
Comedy has a place in your film making, it seems.
You know, there’s this odd natural response I learned early on when I was making that “Phantasm” movie years ago. You see…your natural response after experiencing a startle or a scare is an uncontrollable release of laughter. So, I think that they are linked somehow.
In my mind, humor is the antidote to the difficulties of our cruel and indifferent universe, and humor makes life worth living. That’s why I’m always looking to the humorous side of life. When I read this [Jason Pargin] book, that’s one of the things that was so stunning to me; this first-time novelist could write this book where on one page its hide-under-the-bed scary, and on the next it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Are you entertaining the idea of a sequel?
Well, I would absolutely love to work with [Jason Pargin] again, because I think the guy is a genius in his own right. But I think it’s a little premature on the movie side of things…I certainly would love to explore it.
If you want to learn more about “John Dies at the End” (both book and movie), check out a recent Reddit IAmA with Coscarelli and Pargin.