Well it’s that lazy week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The weather here in Austin has been uncharacteristically cold, damp, and dark and all I’ve really been doing is lounging around in my jammies, hanging out with my kids, running, and watching horror movies at night. I finally got the chance to check out Don Coscarelli’s latest flick, JOHN DIES AT THE END, starring Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Clancy Brown, and Paul Giamatti. Coscarelli wrote the screenplay which he adapted from the novel of the same name from David Wong. Not unlike THE NAKED LUNCH, the novel, “John Dies at the End” was considered an unfilmable novel. I purposely didn’t go out and read the novel because I wanted to enjoy the film in and of itself. I did, however, watch this with a buddy who did read the novel (more on his comments later). We all know Coscarelli from his infamous PHANTASM films and of course from his wildly entertaining and well made BUBBA HO-TEP. But how did Coscarelli make out adapting a seemingly ‘unfilmable’ novel.
The story behind the making of JOHN goes all the way back to BUBBA HO-TEP and the desire to make the follow up, BUBBA NOSFERATU. Actor Paul Giamatti was (and from what I understand still is) onboard to make NOSFERATU but there were problems with financing and conflicts with Bruce Campbell’s schedule. So the opportunity came around to adapt JOHN DIES AT THE END (and with it came financing), so Coscarelli and Giamatti switched gears and started their journey into this very bizarre world where anything is possible and anything can, and often does, happen. The plot revolves around Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), two 20-something slackers who take on and solve cases/mysteries that usually have some kind of supernatural edge to it. In the opening scenes, Dave and John are brought in on a case that ends with them being attacked by a meat monster creature formed entirely out the of the various cuts of meat in a basement freezer!! This must be seen to be believed.
One day John, who is the more experimental of the two when it comes to ingesting various illegal substances, stumbles upon a new street drug called Soy Sauce. It’s a viscous, black fluid that takes it’s user on a wild trip outside time and space. It allows some users to skip around in time, gives them psychic abilities, and also allows them to enter into other dimensions. Sometimes the users “come back” and aren’t fully human anymore; other times the user is allowed to control space and time. As John explains, “You don’t choose Soy Sauce; it chooses you.” After John’s extended trip on Soy Sauce and after Dave accidentally pokes himself in the leg with it, JOHN DIES goes on a surreal and bizarre journey filled with odd looking slimy creatures with lots of teeth, strange people not from our dimension, and cops who take on “avenging angel” roles, and weird other-dimensional creatures planning on invading and taking over earth. If you like your films linear where every element is thoroughly explained then JOHN DIES is definitely not for you. The movie itself is like the drug trip the two leads are on. There’s many twists and turns in the plot that’ll keep you on your toes and guessing where everything is going. If you recall my book reviews on Cameron Pierce’s bizarro books, JOHN DIES is along those same terms. When bizarro fiction is done right, the novel will have an internal logic that stays consistent within the bizarre universe the author creates. This is what we have going on in JOHN DIES. It’s a wild and crazy trip, but everything that occurs makes sense within the world that David Wong and Coscarelli created.
The acting in JOHN DIES is fantastic all around. The chemistry between Dave and John is what propels the film and the fact that Coscarelli put such important roles in the hands of two unknown actors was risky … but it also paid off. Williamson and Mayes pull off their roles perfectly and the chemistry between them is completely believable. And Paul Giamatti? When’s the last time you’ve seen something with Giamatti in it where he wasn’t terrific? Clancy Brown (The Kurgen from the original HIGHLANDER) also has a small but pivotal role here. He plays another character that has a foot in the supernatural and who can travel to other dimensions, but I felt his role was largely wasted. He didn’t have nearly enough screen time!! I really wanted to learn more about his character. There’s also great cameos from Angus Scrimm (as a priest, nonetheless) and from Doug Jones (Guillermo del Toro’s favorite character actor) that are really fun.
Coscarelli does an excellent job controlling the material here. In less capable hands, JOHN DIES could’ve easily been an out of control roller coaster, but Coscarelli really has a firm grasp on the story and never lets it get away from him. The film also looks beautiful. I love the color palette — it gives the overall film a very surreal look and feel.
So what how does this stand up to the novel? Remember, I haven’t yet read the novel, but my buddy did a while ago and from what he remembers he really enjoyed this adaptation. Whenever a popular novel is made in to a film there’s always going to be parts of the novel (most likely well-loved parts) that are left out. There’s always a risk of alienating the fan base that made the novel so popular. Whenever I see a film version of a novel I really liked I always take a step back and try to judge the film on it’s own merits. Was the acting, story, and ending good? Did the film at least capture the spirit on what made the novel so good? Things like that. And it seems like JOHN DIES does all that. I’m looking forward to reading the novel. There were more than a few times when I felt I was watching a David Cronenberg film, specifically THE NAKED LUNCH. I mean this to be a huge compliment!!
If you like your films bizarre with tons of twists and turns then you’re going to like JOHN DIES. If you don’t need every element in the plot spoon fed with an explanation, then you’ll enjoy JOHN DIES. This film will most likely divide fans but it’s no doubt destined for “cult status.” This film is best enjoyed if you just sit back and experience what’s going on. I also see a second viewing helping to clarify parts of the plot. And I bet you’re all wondering and wanting to ask me the same question: Does John, indeed, die at the end? You’re gonna have to find out for yourself. Don’t miss JOHN DIES AT THE END!! Great job by Coscarelli and the cast!!
Director: Don Coscarelli
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 5 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer