David Wong's 2007 novel, JOHN DIES AT THE END, was lovingly described by cult favorite horror director Don Coscarelli as "Stephen King meets Douglas Adams". I admit I can't speak for Wong's novel, but if Coscarelli's new film of the same name is any indication, I tend to think a more fitting comparison might have been if Hunter S. Thompson had decided to start adding to the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. Needless to say Coscarelli quickly purchased the rights to adapt Wong's book soon after he'd read it, and with principal photography having started in 2010, the long, strange journey has come to a close, resulting in a 99 minute film that premiered at Sundance in January of 2012, and has finally seen the light of day in North America one year later, with the "official" test-release at the Arclight Theater in Santa Monica this week. I sincerely hope it does well, as the box office take there will determine how wide a release Magnolia Entertainment will actually give it across the country.
So... what on earth can you even say about this flick? At the end of the day, the film is largely an origin story for a pair of slacker supernatural busting specialists, both blessed and cursed with the ability to see, hear, and interact with things on a dimensional wavelength not usually offered to the people of Earth. Cellular hot dogs, explosive corpses, wormholes into alternate histories, zombie biker skinheads, and gratuitous cartoon violence become the norm in a film that only continues to up its WTF factor after a charming opening monologue that sets the irreverent, violent, surreal, and philosophically curious tone that follows. The heroic David Wong - and thus, the film itself, is smart enough to ask these questions and present them in a terrifyingly meaningful way... it's just that neither of them really care.
Perhaps "terrifying" isn't a word that'll go on to describe the film in general, though. I suppose for lack of a better classification it is, technically, a horror film dealing with interdimensional invaders and angry souls from beyond this mortal coil, but the often accidentally-heroic duo of David Wong (oddly Caucasian Chase Williamson - yes, they explain that) and John Cheese (Rob Mayes) go about their work of exorcism, monster killing, and alien tracking with a sort of detached frustration, having initially only gotten involved when their own lives were on the line and eventually took to handling wayward trans-dimensional visitors as a way to make ends meet. It's not like you'll tend to be much good at doing anything else when you're constantly seeing creatures and people from alternate realities in your every day life, anyway. There's a level of mystery and repulsive body-horror that flows through the film, but it's a dry, snarky comedy first and a love letter to horror later, in the same way that the aforementioned Douglas Adams had a gift for turning the stuffy minutiae of Science Fiction world building and made it a place to joke about how there are no answers - not any that make sense, at the very least.
The bulk of the film is actually a flashback to when David and John were first introduced to "soy sauce", the nickname they give an alien goo that gives both of them a shocking level of perception unknown to most people. He decides to meet a down on his luck reporter and give a confession, of sorts, to the skeptical Arnie (Paul Giamatti). He weaves a story of madness, violence and paranoia, of his friends being murdered by a strange new drug that turns them inside-out, about a spore shedding demon named Shitload, and a universe dedicated to caring for a being known only as Korrok. It's a lot to take in, but the devil's really in the details, and honestly even mentioning the existance of the "Meat Monster" is bordering on territory I'd rather you guys just saw for yourselves. This story is so strange, so layered, so different from anything I've seen in ages that, honestly, I'm amazed it was made in the first place, much less that it's currently in an extremely limited theatrical release (while also, incidentally, playing On Demand and getting a Blu-ray/DVD release in April). I'm clearly an advocate of people watching movies in general, but with all the dedication this uniquely fucked up journey clearly had put into it, I'm doubly inclined to request that anyone reading the thought-vomit that comes out of my digital mouth somehow pay to see this thing. They don't make 'em like this anymore - hell, they never really did! - but the fact that they even tried is incredibly beautiful, and it deserves your time, your respect, and give or take, twenty dollars out of your wallet.
The film isn't flawless, though arguably the biggest problem is that it's not entirely a straight adaptation of David Wong's book. Don Coscarelli served as both screen writer and director, and while he clearly loved Wong's original material, he also knew going in that once the original novel gets to Las Vegas it basically became "unfilmable", at least on the modest budgets they were asking for. (The actual production budget has yet to have been revealed, but if it was more than one or two million dollars I'd be surprised.) Coscarelli did the best he could as the man bringing Wong's unconventional novel to the screen, adapting the first 1/3rd or so of the text as close to verbatim as he could, and then skipped to the last stretch of the novel's episodic insanity, hoping to explain just enough about the universe the origin story took place in, and give us an idea of how David and John "became" accidental heroes. Coscarelli's film may be a shadow of Wong's original novel for all I know, but as a movie that stands on its own two feet, the story felt complete enough, at least in that "This Is Going To Be A Beloved Midnight Movie 20 Years From Now" sort of way. Again, I haven't read the book myself, but on its own merit the film explains everything it absolutely had to and leaves itself open-ended enough that it could continue on perhaps indefinitely, with David and John traveling to untold alien worlds and fending off every kind of crazy bogeyman the universe can throw at them... and yet, it doesn't have to. We get enough to be satisfied with, and it's a fun ride unto itself. Still, Don Coscarelli says anyone who liked the movie can find a bunch of great stuff that he didn't get a chance to show us, and with their continuing adventures having already culminated in a full length sequel called, I kid you not: This Book Is Full Of Spiders. (Seriously Don't Touch It.)
I'll admit that as fascinating and fun as the film is, there are still limits to adapting difficult material like this on a shoestring budget; the practical effects and fairly limited use of CG in the first hour or so all work just fine, but once the "Ghost Door" makes its appearance the TV quality digital effects become a bit more apparent, and the last act - a sweeping, grandiose tale that introduces a creature of Lovecraftian scale - begins to look just a little silly, and not the same kind of silly the Meat Monster or Brain Crab set pieces had been. Honestly, it just looks cheap, and not even in the "we totally meant to do that" way I can almost forgive in films like Father's Day. It's still fun, and packed with a surreal sense of humor and some fantastic moments of unprecedented badassery, it just doesn't have the same intimate, natural connection with the audience that the first hour and change were so good at keeping. Before Korrok's Universe is introduced, everything felt absurd but totally, unmistakably possible and "real" in the limited scope of the story being told; once that alternate dimension is introduced, the whole thing feels just a bit hokey. It ends on a high note, though, and even when the film fails to convince us that what we're seeing is in any way legit, it's still a charming and confounding experience that I recommend you take for what it is, and not what it could have been with limitless resources.
The two leads were graduates fresh from UCLA, if I'm remembering right, but the characters they're playing are supposed to be young and a bit thick-headed anyway, and I thought they did a very good job with the admittedly difficult to roll with material they were handed. Angus "The Tall Man" Scrimm has a memorable cameo, Kevin Michael Richardson has some utterly howl-inducing vocal acid to sling as Korrok, Glynn Turman is left with the unenviable position of being the heavy in a film where he doesn't understand the forces he's up against, Clancy Brown shows up to be the ultimate psychic badass in the cheesiest wrapper possible, Daniel Roebuck affably convinces us he's a dedicated and dangerous cultist (despite never taking off what vaguely looks like a trimmed down Richard Nixon mask), Doug Jones gets to walk around with his actual face hanging out for a change, and if you don't immediately want to hug Fabienne Therese there might be something physically wrong with you. Even the nothing parts that get one or two lines are consistently decent, and while Giamatti is easily the "biggest" name attached to this film it's worth noting that he was a producer and probably showed up just because he thought it was such a goddamn cool idea. He was right, too.
I like Phantasm and Beast Master just fine, but this and Bubba Ho-Tep are by far the best features Coscarelli has given us yet. I'm hard-pressed to say which is "better" since they operate on such different wavelengths; it's like asking someone if The Godfather is better than Apocalypse Now, a slightly useless comparison only made possible by the fact that the same man happened to direct both. (The answer is Apocalypse Now, by the way.) It's just a fun, uniquely crazy ride that's far better experienced than described. I haven't been this pleasantly befuddled about what to say about a movie since the sexual-dysfunction fueled beat poetry epic that was Dr. Caligari, and at least that was such an obscure piece of lost trash I had no choice but to say something about it. John Dies at the End is readily available to anyone with cable or The Internet, and as such I'm willing to let you guys bite the bullet and decide for yourselves what muddled adjectives should be strung together to try and explain what just made your brain boil and then glaze over.
If you need any more convincing, just take a peek here:
I don't get to say this anywhere near often enough, but the film not only delivers everything the advertisements promise, but it surpasses any sane expectation they might have given you.