Thursday, February 28, 2013

JOHN DIES AT THE END: Slacker Ghostbusting and Eldritch Horror

John Dies at the End (2012)
Director: Don Coscarelli
Seen via: Nevermore Film Festival
Rating: 7 / 10

David Wong's John Dies at the End is one of the best horror novels I've read in the past few years. It's a great blend of cosmic horror and puerile humor that also manages to say some profound things about isolation and identity. I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me laugh out loud, and this is one of them. Wong is a pseudonym of Jason Pargin, editor for humor site, and the novel is assembled from a series of short stories he originally published online. This results in some pretty scatterbrained source material that might cause many directors to balk. Leave it to Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) to step up to the plate. While cramming a full book's worth of material into a film clocking just over ninety minutes is tough, he manages to reduce the script down to almost all of the best elements of the novel.

The film is framed as a conversation between a young guy named Dave (Chase Williamson) and a reporter (Paul Giamatti) who's interested in the supposed paranormal events to which Dave has been been witness. Dave and his slacker friend John (Rob Mayes) have stumbled upon a drug called Soy Sauce that enables them to perceive supernatural entities lurking just beyond the senses of ordinary humans. After realizing most of these entities are largely malevolent, John and Dave take it upon themselves to become a pair of freelance ghostbusters and assist those plagued by poltergeists, parasitic slugs, or extradimensional beings.

Where the novel managed to strike a fine balance between comedy and horror, Coscarelli chooses to play the film primarily for laughs. It's hard to believe that it's been nearly a decade since his last effort, Bubba Ho-Tep, but this film has the same clever writing paired with witty voice-over narration. It helps that the source material is so strong, and some of the best jokes from the book make it into the film almost verbatim. The focus on humor doesn't completely undermine the creepiness though. This film doesn't tone down the blood and guts, and is populated with a variety of unique monsters. To give you some examples: early in the film, the duo takes on a ghost whose physical form is assembled out of pieces of meat, numerous oversized leeches appear throughout the story, John battles a moustache that flies around like a bat, and a sentient cloud of bugs that dubs itself Shitload possess an idiot teenager. The monsters are a blend of practical effects and CGI, and the old-school effects really shine. The CGI is unobtrusive at best, but shows its seams towards the end, when John and Dave begin dimension-hopping in search of the cause of all these evil manifestations. (Is the decline in production value just a consequence of the budget running thin late in the game?)

It's unfortunate that the film doesn't descend into the dark places that the book occasionally explored. Dave's backstory is absent, which turns the opening quip about a damaged axe into a gag, as opposed to foreshadowing of the extreme identity crisis he faces later on (also absent from the film). The buildup to the final baddie isn't foreshadowed in the film as thoroughly in the novel. The novel's version of Korrok is disturbing because it was massively powerful and had the mind of a disgruntled adolescent. Here, it just shows up as a huge blob of CGI that instantly begins making dick jokes. I can't really pin down how frequently my knowledge of the novel ended up carrying me through the film's weaker spots, but friends who haven't read the book have told me that it held up pretty well for them.

As a whole, the cast is a great fit. Relative newcomer Chase Williamson does a great job of capturing Dave's disaffected outlook on the surreal events he's unwillingly drawn into. Honestly, Rob Mayes would not have been my first pick for John. He's too good-looking; I pictured someone with longer hair, thinner - more pothead than frat guy. Again, this is my own baggage from when I read the novel. Mayes does a decent job overall, mostly because he captures the freewheeling spirit of the character. I'm a strong believer in the notion Paul Giamatti adds a lot to any movie, and this is another piece of evidence backing me up, even though he's just an ancillary character.

Coscarelli's John Dies at the End is a better adaptation of the novel than I was expecting. It's probably the best film that was possible to make, given the nature of the book. It's fast-paced and funny enough to maintain its momentum, even if some individual plot points, effects, and gags aren't that strong on their own. When I saw this at Durham's Nevermore Film Fest, it was with a large, enthusiastic audience, and it was a great time. I have the feeling this film worked much better theatrically than it would have on my laptop. If there's a screening near you, be sure to check it out while you can. Fans of the book can expect the same level of comedy, but with slightly less developed characters and slightly milder existential terror.

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