Previously on Movie Curiosities, I sat down to watch and review a film called John Dies at the End. My review started out as a well-intentioned introduction to the film and its source material, though my incredible bias toward the book and its author quickly overcame my judgment. I ultimately felt like I wrote the first review purely for my own enjoyment, which is why I kept it to my home blog.
Since I do hold myself to some standards as a film critic, I promised myself to give the film a more impartial write-up later on. Moreover, I’ve no doubt that approaching this film from a newcomer’s perspective will be more useful to the vast majority of people who are unfamiliar with the book. If I can persuade any of you to see the movie and read the book in the process, so much the better.
That said, if you’re at all curious about where the book or this movie came from, I would entreat you to read the first several paragraphs of my previous review.
As much as I hate to risk starting this supposedly dispassionate review on the wrong foot, I still can’t bring myself to write a plot synopsis for this story. I’m not sure it’s possible to adequately sum up a film in which a sentient, shape-shifting, mind-altering drug of unknown origin — called “Soy Sauce” — is a central part of the premise. Furthermore, half the fun of this demented story is in discovering precisely what’s going on.
For now, let’s just say that the movie focuses on two slackers, name of David Wong (Chase Williamson) and the eponymous John Cheese (Rob Mayes). The drug finds its way into their systems (because the drug chooses its users, you see) and subsequently get caught up in a kind of interdimensional war involving forces that are just barely beyond the senses of ordinary people. This war involves paranormal entities and a whole lotta gore, all of which are brought to the screen with a rock-bottom budget and minimal CGI.
To paraphrase a review I once read, imagine if an ’80s-era Sam Raimi directed a Bill & Ted movie and you’d be getting close.
Of course, the movie deserves a bit more credit than that. Jason Pargin (who wrote the supposedly biographical novel under the pseudonym of “David Wong”) and Don Coscarelli (the lauded cult filmmaker who adapted the book) use the premise to explore a variety of such intriguing concepts as the subjective nature of reality and mankind’s woeful insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Yet all of these ruminations are delivered with mind-boggling creativity and very witty — though often crass — humor. I’ve said it before with regard to this story, and I’ll keep on saying it: Imagine if Chuck Palahniuk wrote a novel while being haunted by Douglas Adams and possessed by Philip K. Dick. And now imagine that book was being adapted by the guy who made Bubba Ho-Tep.
Mercifully, we are given two “straight men” through whom we can witness and comment on all the crazy proceedings. One of them is David, as he slowly adapts to life on the Sauce. That part is told in flashback, however. In the present, David is relaying his story to a skeptical reporter named Arnie Blondestone, played by exec-producer Paul Giamatti.
I’ve heard that Giamatti’s enthusiasm for the project is one of the primary reasons why this film got made in the first place, and I believe it. Blondestone may not get much screen time, and he may not have much effect on the larger plot, but damned if Giamatti doesn’t come at this role with everything he’s got. He sells every moment of sleaze and shock and skepticism like the seasoned pro he is. More than that, Giamatti plays the part with a strange sort of glint in his eye, like he’s genuinely thrilled to be part of this picture.
Likewise, Rob Mayes thoroughly committed to Sparkle Motion for this picture. John is the polar opposite of his best friend, diving headfirst into the world of Soy Sauce and loving every moment of it while David looks on in confusion. In other words, the character called for a great amount of physical humor with a constant drunken swagger. Mayes brought all of that and more.
Really, the whole cast is extraordinary. Doug Jones turned in an otherworldly character as only he could deliver. Daniel Roebuck succeeded in crafting a pompous sort of man who appears to have set up residence somewhere in the Uncanny Valley. Glynn Turman brings a lot of fire and brimstone with a not-so-subtle hint of desperation, which makes for a very captivating performance. Clancy Brown seems to play the role as a caricature of himself, which was absolutely the right way to go in this case. I should also mention Angus Scrimm’s protracted cameo, which was nothing short of perfect from start to finish.
As for the younger actors, I thought that Allison Weissman did a fine job of playing a femme fatale/damsel in distress/creepy-as-fuck girl in her brief screen time. Additionally, Johnny Weston did a serviceable job playing a paranormal entity in the guise of a teenage whigger. On the other hand, we’ve got Jimmy Wong. Not that he gets a whole lot of screen time, but it’s made abundantly clear when the character first shows up that he’s going to die, and I didn’t much care when he did.
Then there’s the matter of Fabianne Therese, who plays a character named Amy. This girl got ripped off, plain and simple. I was honestly quite impressed with her performance of a young woman who’s very beautiful, yet constantly insecure and put-upon because of her missing limb. It’s amazing how much emotion she can wring out of a few brief moments, and the character is made instantly sympathetic in her hands (so to speak). Alas, the script completely screwed her over. But I’ll get to my screenplay gripes in a moment.
Last but not least is David himself, Chase Williamson. Strangely enough, I thought his performance was hit-and-miss. Don’t get me wrong, his interplay with Mayes is rock-solid, which means that the heart and core of this story are wonderfully presented. Additionally, Williamson does a fantastic job through most of the film. Alas, for every five or six times when he expertly sells a scene, there’s a line delivery that falls totally flat. I understand that Williamson was recruited for this film right out of drama school, and I believe it. The guy’s got potential, and he’s not bad enough to sink this film by a long shot, but he’s not exactly ready for prime-time yet, either.
Moving on to more prominent complaints, the editing leaves a lot to be desired. There are some glaring errors in continuity, and I could practically see the stitches left over from scenes taken out. I can only assume that David’s romance arc with Amy was left among the scenes on the cutting room floor, because their getting together at the end made absolutely zero sense. These characters barely had any screen time together to share any dialogue or chemistry, so what the fuck?
Speaking of incomplete character arcs, I’m still fuming at Doug Jones’ lack of anything to do. His character gets all of two scenes, both of which are almost entirely exposition, and then the character’s gone without a trace. What a sloppy misuse of a great actor.
Finally, I’ve got to complain about the climax. John is completely out of commission through most of the film, and then he suddenly reappears at the start of the third act with all manner of helpful weapons and tools. There’s no mention given as to how or when he made any of his peculiar items, they just appear fully formed out of his ass. FAIL.
(Side note: Just for a miscellaneous gripe, there’s a guy who’s clearly still breathing after he was supposedly shot dead near the ending. I know it’s a nitpick, but it’s a nitpick that no film should ever, ever get away with.)
As for the special effects, they’re very hit-and-miss. For every effect that looks incredible — especially given the shoestring budget — there’s a shot of pitiful CGI or laughable use of fishing line. I’ll give them kudos for creativity and ambition, however.
On the other hand, the score kicks ass. Brian Tyler deserves all manner of praise for how he used so many strange musical instruments and weird arrangements, all to create a score that gave a creepy and scary vibe without being melodramatic about it. Brilliantly done.
In spite of all my nitpicks about this film, I can still give it a pass for three reasons: Ambition, creativity, and variety. It would be enough for a film to be offbeat and weird, but it’s also a film that’s surprisingly intellectual and quite terrifying as well. This is a film in which a monster made entirely of meat products can coexist with a hive mind of body-snatching white insects. A film in which David talks on a psychic bratwurst cell phone before meeting a bioengineered fascist supercomputer/demigod. A film in which characters postulate about the nature of hell just before and after a few dick jokes.
John Dies at the End is the kind of film that commands respect, if only for the enormous balls of the people who made it. Don Coscarelli and company set out to make a batshit action/comedy/horror film of a truly epic scope, budgetary limits and public opinion be damned. The film won’t be for everyone, and I won’t deny that it has some glaring flaws, but there are so many positive things about it that I would heartily recommend a watch as quickly as possible.
If you like the movie, or if it sounds like the kind of movie you’d like to watch, then I urge you to read the book. If you didn’t like the movie, or if it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you’d see, go read the book and then see the movie.
I guess my ultimate recommendation is the same one that I wrote for my previous review: Read the book and watch the movie. I don’t care which you do first, but don’t you dare do one without the other.