Saturday, June 20, 2015

Netflix Picks: John Dies at the End

Posted By on Sat, Jun 20, 2015 at 8:00 AM

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The first novel by David Wong (real name Jason Pargin), John Dies at the End, reads like H.P. Lovecraft with all the racism replaced with dick jokes and personable characters. The 2012 film adaptation by wacko-horror magnate Don Coscarelli is exactly what it needs to be. Maybe a little of the horror is lost in the wacky weirdness, but John Dies feels like that unexplainable movie you could only ever find in the video rental section at Albertson's.

The story is framed by author-insert David Wong (Chase Williamson) telling journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti as a much-needed straight man) about how he and his best friend John Cheese (Rob Mayes) went from college dropouts to part-time monster hunters.

The story begins at a party, where Cheese scores a mysterious drug called soy sauce from a Rastafarian named Robert Marley (Tai Bennett) while Wong plays it safe and heads home. In the morning, the cops find Marley has exploded, and everyone who took the soy sauce has started dropping dead, Cheese included. But while waiting to be interviewed by the police, Wong gets a call from Cheese, who claims he's not nearly as dead as he seems.

The key is the soy sauce, which is more than just a death trip. Short-term, the drug allows the user to see through time and space, plus a little bit of telekinesis for good measure. Long-term, the user can see creatures and things from other dimensions – and they can see the user, too. Long story short, something came through to our world when Marley popped, and it's up to Wong, Cheese and a few losers from the party to stop it from taking over. In the end, Wong and Cheese cross into another dimension to stop the evil at its source.

The scenes between Williamson and Giamatti are fun to watch and tense in the right kind of way. Giamatti is always entertaining, and his job as Blondestone is solid, especially in his final scenes. Williamson holds up as a serviceable main character throughout most of the movie, but when he's playing the reluctant seller of dark secrets, he reads a little better.

I hesitate to use the word plausibility to describe a movie with drugs that break reality, but it fits. Weirdos and overwhelmed losers would have to be be the people stuck on the front lines of an inter-dimensional invasion. The people on the fringes – not academics, not trust fund brats and not world-weary detectives – are going to be the first to encounter and get mired in the inexplicable. On the same note, the movie doesn't explain exactly how and why everything works the way it does. The audience is deliberately left as bewildered as the protagonists.

But maybe that gives the movie too much credit. First and foremost, Pargin's novel is a vehicle for existential dread and crass jokes, and Coscarelli had to pare down the existential dread. In an early scene, unspeakable forces trap Cheese and Wong in a basement by turning a doorknob into a flaccid penis. A possessed Fred Durst-wannabe (Jonny Weston) street-ifies a bible verse (Mark 5:9; My name is Legion, for we are many), introducing himself as “'Shitload.' Because there's a shitload of us in here.” There's a uniquely mid-continental kind of trashy that's captured perfectly between the drug culture, the abandoned mall and the sense of stagnation.

As noted, some of the horror gets drowned out by the humor and the sheer weirdness. The Lovecraft-like dread of knowing there are things our senses can't perceive that can just erase people doesn't hit as hard as it could. There's also the film's treatment of its only major female character, Amy Sullivan (Fabianne Therese). I haven't mentioned her yet because she's flat. She's crucial to the plot at one time, and Wong needs a romantic prospect and someone to talk to while Cheese is dead. Therese doesn't have a lot of space to act, but she's on par with Williamson and Mayes.

Of course, the book is always better than the movie. Coscarelli's adaptation merely presents the kind of icy dread Pargin bathes in. But by and large, Coscarelli's decisions on what to keep and what to change make sense.

John Dies at the End is some sort of platonic ideal of a B horror movie. There's no attempt to build it into anything more than a vehicle for nightmares and dick jokes. There are some serious names behind it, but most of the cast is unknown. At points, it even commits to the fear it's built on. But it's funny and weird enough to be enjoyed by people who aren't hardcore horror fans.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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