SXSW 2012: ‘John Dies at the End’ bracingly surreal and charming

John Dies at the End
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli
2012, USA

John Dies at the End, the new film from exalted director Don Coscarelli screened last night at The Alamo Drafthouse to a packed house full of hardcore genre devotees. John Dies, also having played earlier this year at Sundance, enjoyed a friendly audience for what the director insists is the true premiere of the finished product here at SXSW.

As John Dies begins David and John are a couple of twenty-something burnouts who encounter a black goopy substance at a party one night. The “drug,” which goes by the street name “soy sauce,” gives them a host of new abilities (and side effects) but namely it allows them to read minds and transcend space and time. Oh and it also opens them up to a world of Lovecraftian horrors. It’s literally a vegan’s worst nightmare. From there, David and John take it upon themselves to rescue mankind from danger and imminent destruction.

John Dies takes place primarily in flashback, with the main character David Wong(the same as the novel’s author) recounting a series of increasingly bizarre events to reporter Arnie Goldstone (Paul Giamatti), a format that works against the movie at times. From what I’d read about the book/film prior to the screening I had come to expect something between the Hellblazer series and Naked Lunch, having seen it now it seems the latter and the subsequent film adaptation by David Cronenberg is the closer approximation.

Just as with Naked Lunch, John Dies has a lot to offer fans of the original as well as the uninitiated. Anyone willing to cast themselves into the madness is certain to have plenty of fun along the way. Chase Williamson, who plays Wong, is great in a deadpan slacker sort of way. The newcomer feels very at home with the material, never missing a beat to pouring on the sarcasm or shoot a pointed glance towards the camera, all while shrugging off an onslaught of ghastly multidimensional monsters and rudely placed phalli. As Coscarelli revealed during the Q&A, there were some doubts about the newcomer earlier on. Williamson’s first scenes on set were a series of rapid-fire monologues many opposite Giamatti, a truly daunting task. But any fears were quickly assuaged once the cameras were rolling and the result is great in a series of opening scenes.

However, problems do begin to develop once we’re firmly planted within Wong’s world. Roughly halfway through, the exposition becomes increasingly convoluted and unclear, which in turn bogs down the pacing. I was more than willing to be carried along by the madness but as more and more was thrown at me I found myself needing the elements to coalesce into something that made sense. Not necessarily a neat little box wrapped up with a bow but something that gave me confidence that it wasn’t just sloppy storytelling or difficulty reigning in the zanier elements of the book. And maybe that would not be so surprising. It’s a problem many novels face when making the jump to the screen. As Coscarelli mentioned afterward it was certainly no easy task condensing the novel’s 384 pages down to the 115 that were in the final shooting script.

There’s a lot to like here: it’s outrageously funny, visceral and hallucinogenic. Everyone, from the new faces to the old pros like Clancy Brown and Glynn Turman (and Giamatti, of course), give solid performances. If Coscarelli had any doubts about adapting the source material they don’t show in his direction which is calm and assured. My hope is that fans of the book will find a lot to like in the movie. However, many John Dies virgins may leave with their minds blown but not necessarily impressed.

Scott Colquitt

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