Sunday, 13 April 2014

John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End is the brainchild of executive editor Jason Pargin, whose comedy-horror novel and its sequel This Book Is Full of Spiders – both published under the pseudonym David Wong – have amassed an impressive cult following. Pargin’s stories started life on his old website, as a relatively unheard-of web-serial with new chapters released every Halloween. Using online feedback to tweak his writing, Pargin was able to secure a book deal and, shortly afterwards, director Don Coscarelli (of Bubba Ho-Tep fame) picked up the rights to the film version. It’s a tale for the Internet age, to be sure.

The film had a shaky start in life, debuting on video streaming websites (legitimately, I might add) a full month before it managed to secure a US theatrical release, and suffering the indignity of a “straight to DVD and Blu-ray” release here in the UK. Bogged down further by mediocre reviews – JDatE’s Metacritic score is 53/100 at the time of writing – it seems unlikely this movie will ever hit the mainstream. But, as a fan of the book, I thought I’d give it a try anyway. And I’m really glad I did.

The film tells the story of its “writer”, David Wong, and his slacker best friend John… Yes, I know what you’re thinking and no, I’m not going to tell you if he does or doesn’t. When we first meet Dave (played by Chase Williamson), he’s trying to convince a sceptical reporter (Hollywood veteran Paul Giamatti) of his psychic powers.

See, Dave and John (Rob Mayes) have both had their consciousnesses altered after coming into contact with a drug called “soy sauce”, given to them at a party by an enigmatic Jamaican called Robert Marley. Unfortunately for our heroes, the soy sauce – whose effects combine a Limitless-like perception-boosting effect with knowledge of other worlds and the ability to see things most people can’t (monsters, ghost doors to other universes, etc.) – has left a trail of death and destruction in its wake. As you’d expect, they get sucked right into the middle of it, and what follows is a feast of inter-dimensional phone calls, otherworldly car-jackings, multiple run-ins with police officers who may or may not exist, and infestations by alien parasites. Much of the humour in the book comes from the many bizarre situations John, Dave, and co. find themselves in, and this translates beautifully to the screen.

Sadly, its insanely fast pacing doesn’t translate so well, and I have a feeling that’s what put so many people off. JDatE spends the entirety of its 100-minute runtime throwing one ridiculous scenario after another at you and, while the movie manages to cram in nearly everything from the book, an extra half hour would have given it some much-needed breathing space. John and Dave’s adventure is fun, but borderline exhausting – especially considering it completely changes direction in its final act, hurriedly cramming in a storyline on top of the hour of exposition you’ve already watched. The film’s sharp dialogue, delivered by its quite frankly excellent cast, should be enough to keep most people going, but if you’re someone who likes a straightforward story with evenly-spaced plot points, this might not be the film for you.

The movie tries to do a lot visually, too, but this is a real treat and I think most film fans will find something to nerdgasm over. The filmmakers have done a stellar job of selling the book’s tongue-in-cheek, almost spoofy style, combining fairly run-of-the-mill cinematography with unsettling jump cuts, deliberately conspicuous CGI, cheesy Beetlejuice-style props, and even 2D animation. The film’s patchwork, low-budget style is played to comic effect, calling back to cult films from the 70s and 80s – and it makes the occasional moments of genuine, shiver-inducing gore and creepiness that much more powerful.

This is an ambitious film that attempts to build on its source material, translating Jason Pargin’s bizarre vision of unseen worlds and sinister forces into a big-screen adventure of Spielbergian proportions. While it never quite achieves that, this movie has an awful lot going for it and it definitely left me wanting more. Which is why, despite its flaws, John Dies at the End still manages to scrape a 4/5. 


Mike Lee

John Dies at the End at CeX

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