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Non-Review Review: John Dies at the End

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Don Coscarelli is that most frustrating of film-makers. He’s a remarkable talent able to produce a story with the zany off-kilter madness of Bubba Ho-tep, but can also produce something as disappointing and as frustrating as John Dies at the End. It isn’t that John Dies at the End is completely without charm. It can occasionally be a wittily subversive take on the staples of American horror, from the works of H.P. Lovecraft through to the gore of seventies and eighties schlock-fests.

The real problem with John Dies at the End is that, for all its charm and its wit, it feels terribly unoriginal.

Sauced...

Sauced…

There are a lot of good ideas in John Dies at the End. The problem is that they are good ideas that have been executed better before. To be fair, the notion of a substance allowing the user to perceive “the real world” might not have originated with The Matrix, but John Dies at the End uses the concept similarly enough that the comparison feels apt. Compare, for example, the scene of Agent Smith “bugging” John Anderson with the hijacking of David’s car.

Similarly, the slapstick horror aspect of the film feels like it owes too conscious a debt to The Evil Dead to dismiss as mere homage. Playing out horror violence as a live-action cartoon was a pretty great idea in 1981 and 1987. Here, unfortunately, it just seems a little too derivative to be engaging or exciting – despite the energy that director Coscarelli channels into the film. It is not enough to merely return to a classic idea, you have to find something even a little new to do with it.

Put on a happy face...

Put on a happy face…

A lot of the shrewder ideas in John Dies at the End feel like they were lifted rather bluntly from the revived Doctor Who. It isn’t just the show’s visual aesthetic, which does a lot of smart things on a tiny budget, but rather concepts that seem to owe a great debt to the writing of Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies. We’re told that the fantastic lurks just outside our perception, implying that human naturally has blinders to prevent it from seeing what we need to see. There are time-displaced phone calls between David and John. Dave even gets to reveal a horrifying truth to an innocent person, bracing with, “I’m sorry.”

Even the movie’s smartest original idea – how to open “a ghost door” – feels like a concept that could have been borrowed from the revived Doctor Who. The result is a really strange genre hybrid that feels like it has been spliced together from a number of beloved cult sources, but also feels decidedly less than the sum of its parts. We’ve seen all these ideas and concepts before, so the fun should be in playing them off one another. Unfortunately, John Dies at the End doesn’t seem to have any loftier ideas than mashing up a variety of genre influences.

Will they match their meat?

Will they match their meat?

That’s not fair. There’s some nice stuff suggested here about the relationship between perception and reality. If we can see things, does that make them real to us? Even if our version of reality doesn’t always match up with that of those around us? Or does it simply make us completely insane? John Dies at the End broaches the topic, but doesn’t have the attention span necessary to follow through. The result is the outline of an interesting, but underdeveloped, central idea.

The film isn’t helped by the presence of Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes in the lead roles. Neither has a natural knack for drama, but they don’t necessarily exude the sort of geeky charisma necessary to anchor a film like this. To be fair, Williamson does a pretty decent parody of the grim no-nonsense narration typical of dodgy horror films (ruminating on philosophical questions involving axes and zombies), but he doesn’t manage to make Dave a compelling or interesting character in his own right.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

John Dies at the End has drawn together a great supporting cast of geeky favourites including Doug Jones and Clancy Brown, but none are given anything substantial to do. In particular, you’d imagine that Brown’s Russian nuke-wielding celebrity should be comedy bold, but it falls rather flat.

To be fair to Coscarelli, the director has done a truly fantastic job realising a film like this on a tiny budget. The prop work is genuinely impressive. Some of the green-screen work looks a little gnaff, but it is strangely charming in its own sort of way. It is very clear that Coscarelli and his team are having a great time making the film, and that shines through to the finished product – proof that budget isn’t necessarily everything, and that a little ingenuity goes a long way.

Are you sure you soy what you thought you soy?

Are you sure you soy what you thought you soy?

I just wish that ingenuity had shone through in the plotting and scripting of this film. The cast is clearly enjoying themselves (especially Paul Giamatti), but the film never quite connects with the audience. There’s no reason to engage with Dave and John, and no reason to get too died up in their zany adventures. It reads more as an affectionate homage to far more compelling and engaging cult properties than anything that is truly exciting on its own terms.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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2 Responses

  1. You’ve just reminded me that I really, really need to read the book. My impression is, from reading David Wong on Cracked, that the book most likely is a homage to the genres mentioned here, but how skilfully he does it (and I do like his writing style on Cracked), I’ll have to wait and see.

    And keeping your review in mind…I’ll most likely still watch the film. Mainly because I always like checking out the adaptations. But after this, I’ll keep my expectations low. (And you’ve made me add a new dream to my list – get to the Jameson Dublin Film Festival, at some point.)

    • I do hope you get to the festival, and I do hope you enjoy it.

      John Dies at the End was probably my least favourite film of the fest, but it’s not a bad film if you’re in the right mood for it. Which, I think, demonstrates that it was actually a pretty good year as the film festival goes. I didn’t once contemplate offering the dreaded 1/4.

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