Dave Wong’s life takes a turn for the bizarre at a concert held by a local rock band fronted by his best friend, John Cheese. A strange man shows up at the show, exhibiting seemingly supernatural powers and offering a drug called “Soy Sauce.” Soon after, the dealer and several others who have taken the drug meet grisly demises, John’s behavior becomes even more erratic than normal, and Dave himself is accidentally dosed with the sauce–granting him a chance to glimpse the true nature of the universe, and causing him to be conscripted into a clandestine war against monstrous powers. It’s up to Dave and John to save the world, but how can they do so when they can’t even understand what the fuck is going on?
Jason Pargin’s 2007 novel John Dies At The End (published under the name of the story’s narrator, David Wong) is one of the best new finds in the realm of horror literature over the last few years. Combining the popular supernatural-hunter format with a mythology owing a lot to H.P. Lovecraft and a seemingly limitless supply of dick jokes, the book is a compelling page-turner despite being packed full to the brim with incident and plot (the pace rarely lets up), and its blend of modern splat, existential terror and gross-out humor marked Pargin as one of the most distinctive voices to hit the scene in many a year.
Luckily, the film adaptation managed to score the perfect writer/director for the material: Don Coscarelli, who mined similar terrain in his 2004 modern-classic adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s Bubba Ho-Tep. Coscarelli’s first challenge is in cutting down the novel, which has enough story in it for three movies (take that, Peter Jackson!), into an hour and a half’s worth of feature film. He succeeds in this task with flying colors, focusing on the novel’s opening (the investigation into the death of Robert) and the closing (the showdown with Korrok) and cutting out most of the source material’s midsection. While I mourned the loss of some of my favorite scenes and characters (I would have loved to be able to see John’s impersonation of Elton John), he delivers a tense, tight and hilarious final product that’s faithful to the spirit of the novel even when deviations were made necessary.
The characterization is delivered with deft wit, presenting Dave and John as self-absorbed yet sympathetic and relatable small-town twentysomething heroes, backed up by a supporting cast of endearingly quirky figures such as the consummate showman Marconi, the ambiguous Robert North and the eccentric second-string villain Largeman. He condenses the novel’s dense mythology into something easily grasped while remaining suitably complex and epic. The dialogue (much of which is derived straight from the book) is memorable and quotable, with great moments coming every few minutes (“I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing with this can of gasoline” and “Have you ever heard the old human expression ‘I want to shoot you so bad my dick’s hard?'” are just two standouts out of many).
Coscarelli also does a bang-up job of bringing the novel’s fictional worlds to life. Despite obvious jokes such as a Chinese restaurant being named We China Food!, Dave’s hometown is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with Midwestern small-town life (although I imagined the novel as being set in Nebraska or Iowa, not Illinois), while Korrok’s realm is exactly as apeshit as you’d imagine it to be. The direction is fluid, the compositions are striking, and the practical effects (brought to you by Robert Kurtzman) are awesome. Unfortunately, the CGI is a bit too obvious, but in an embarrassment of riches such as this that’s a minor quibble at best.
Rounding the proceedings off is a terrific cast, with newcomers Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes delivering what will hopefully become star-making performances as Dave and John. Fabianne Therese is adorable as Amy, Dave’s one-handed love interest. There’s also memorable supporting terms from Paul Giamatti (who also produced), Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Jimmy Wong, Johnny Weston, Doug Jones and Daniel Roebuck. And what would a Coscarelli film be without an appearance from a Phantasm alum, in this case Angus Scrimm? There’s no bum notes from any of the ensemble.
I had high expectations for John Dies At The End, and happily, it not only meets those expectations but exceeds them. It’s the perfect marriage of creator and adapter, and if there’s any justice in the universe its status as a modern classic will be assured. Watch it now and you can say that you were there.
My rating: 9 of 10.
99 minutes. Directed by Don Coscarelli. Starring Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck.