“John Dies At the End” is in limited release from Magnolia Pictures. You can find out if it’s coming to your city with this handy list Alternately, you can watch the movie via your favorite VOD service.
In a few ways, director Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of David Wong’s novel “John Dies At the End” is imperfect–it’s too short, for one thing, and a major character is given short shrift as a result. But these are the complaints of someone who wanted even more of this strange world of sentient drugs and surreal-comic horrors cropping up in a small unnamed town. In that way, “John Dies At the End” is a success: it’s created a world that’s so interesting, that by the end of its brief running time, you’re wishing for another trip there.
In a cheap Chinese restaurant, the very Caucasian David Wong (Chase Williamson) meets with skeptical reporter Arnie Bloodstone (Paul Giamatti). Stories about David and his friend John have been popping up online, putting the pair at the center of all kinds of supernatural weirdness that can only be the result of a series of hoaxes and hype. The distinction between what Gerrit Graham once called “drug real” and “really real” are at the heart of the tale that Wong has for Arnie spinning out of a gooey black drug that’s made its way into our world and picked up the name “Soy Sauce.”
The sauce affect people differently–for most, it’s a one-way ticket to the morgue. But for some, like Dave and his hard-partying friend John (Rob Mayes), it opens up the doors of perception, if the doors of perception opened up to a world of meat monsters, foul-mouthed demi-gods and demonic wiggers. Coscarelli, who largely carries over many scenes from the novel intact, captures the paranoid, often absurd circumstances John and Dave find themselves in when on the sauce which may or may not be in aid to an incursion by invaders from another dimension.
Williamson ably handles Dave’s deadpan narration while playing Dave as appropriately numb and terrified by the ridiculous oncoming apocalypse. This is the young actor’s first role and he finds a nice balance for Wong’s (the character’s) dysfunctional personality. It’s unfortunate that the character doesn’t have more room to breathe onscreen, particularly with a couple of revelations about David’s recent past that open up some huge philosophical questions and layers on another pile of paranoia to the story.
Mayes has oddly, the more challenging role as John who may or may not survive until the end of the movie (let’s say the title is semi-accurate). The party animal bro is typically the character who wears out his welcome the quickest in this kind of thing (see Tyler Labine in “Reaper”), just adding chaos for chaos’ sake. But with both his and Dave’s stories truncated for the screen, he’s played as less the anarchic avatar of good cheer (and flame throwers) of the novel, and more the forgetful, kind of goofy counterpoint to Dave.
Coscarelli, working on a lower budget (that’s kind of his thing, though) is still able to bring across some of the most memorable moments from the novel, even as some unfortunate green screen work in the final act makes a reveal about the big bad behind everything go from absurd to just silly. The director juggles the different tones of the story well, and while there are no outright scares here, some squirm-inducing gore works hand-in-hand with a lot of very dry, very dark comedy.
I’m hoping people head out to see “John Dies At the End”–if it’s successful enough, we might be able to see more stories in this universe. But more than that, this is a great jumping-off point if you’ve never been exposed to Don Coscarelli, one of the less-seen indie horror filmmakers out there. If “JDATE” serves as the gateway for new fans for his work, then the movie will be twice the success it already is.