SXSW 2012

SXSW 2012: 'John Dies at the End', Don Coscarelli's Fun Mind-Trip

by
March 18, 2012

John Dies at the End Review

Don Coscarelli has a way of creating heroes, building protagonists in his films, whether he writes them or not, to a point where there's no choice but to do battle with forces of evil. Hell, he's the guy who pit Elvis and a black-dyed JFK against an evil, Mummified spirit. John Dies at the End, Coscarelli's latest, is based on the novel by David Wong, but the material is ripe for Coscarelli tone. Colorful in its elaborate, often horrific characters and not always comprehensive in story, the film is a fine joining of Wong's material and Coscarelli's film grammar. For better or for worse, John Dies could be the quintessential Coscarelli film.

To fully synopsize the film would be doing it a disservice. Our lead character, Dave Wong — the novel was written under a pseudonym and acts as a memoir — discovers a drug in his small town, a drug called "soy sauce" that has serious effects. His friend, John, has already taken it, and needs Dave's help. Needless to say, the two discover secrets in the world they didn't even know could exist. Monsters exist. Weird ones. And, apparently, if we can see them, they can see us.

It isn't that the film is difficult to explain, though some could even argue that. John Dies at the End is an experience, a movie that needs to be seen to be believed. That doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Without reading the novel but knowing the basics, I'd assume it's a difficult read that delves more into psychology and states of the mind rather than straight-forward, monster hunting. Coscarelli, who adapted the novel for the screen, does a fine job keeping the twisted psychology intact. However, his John Dies at the End adaptation isn't something that could easily be turned into a monster-of-the-week CW show on Friday night. Isn't "Supernatural" over yet?

Thankfully, Coscarelli carries the atmosphere and tone, structure and character, ridiculousness and sometimes incoherence that plays out in Wong's/Jason Pargin's novel. We experience the trip Dave and John take as their "third eye" is chemically opened. We see the monsters they see coming in through the walls of our dimension. Coscarelli never shies from showing us all the gory details, particularly a tasty looking meat monster who shows up early in the film. He has a turkey for a head. God love you, Don.

Actor Chase Williamson, who plays Dave in his first feature film role, is shaky in the start. As the film progresses, his line reading smooths out. It's an indication of learning. The guy is 24 years old. He appears to have a desire to improve in his craft, and no one can fault him for that. He's not much of a presence in this film, but you don't need to be when it's a film like John Dies at the End.

The monsters are key here. The atmosphere is important, as well. Coscarelli makes bold choices in his supporting cast, who help paint the comic book-style trimmings around the psychological monster movie. Clancy Brown makes a whopping appearance as does Doug Jones — he was born for movies like this — and Paul Giamatti, who plays the reporter with whom Dave is sharing his adventures with John. Giamatti appearing in a film such as this is proof again how open-minded and relaxed of an actor he is. He was just in a political movie with George Clooney, now he's flinching at slimy, caged beasts and ducking headless bodies. He does it with 100% of his craft, as well.

Built on tone and injected with serious works of the id, John Dies at the End is a mind-trip of a buddy movie, a Bill and Ted-esque adventure where the leads aren't rocking Wyld Stallyns t-shirts, but injecting themselves with a black drug called soy sauce. Coscarelli treats his characters more like heroes, anyway. What else would you expect? John Dies at the End might always make the most sense. Nod off for 30 seconds, and you'll likely slip completely into confusion. It might not be the best film to see at midnight, but it's certainly a film to experience with a crowd. At least you won't be alone when you begin to hallucinate.

Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 7 out of 10

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  • Yup
    Loved the book, I was a bit of a skeptic about the film. But now I cant wait
  • Guest
     When is this going to be released to general viewing audience? Though I highly doubt it coming to my neck of the woods. Any chance of a DVD/Blue Ray soon?
  • David Banner
    Should be on Blu-Ray/DvD by Q4, maybe Q3 even. Here's a teaser trailer of the flick: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=my9Pr-W92SM
    • Guest
       Here's hoping.
  • Guest
    Saw it at Sundance, skipped it at SXSW.  Hopefully they've improved it since I saw it.  Before the film started at Sundance, I was surprised no one from the film bothered to attend.  About 30 minutes into it, I realized why they didn't.  The audience, who seemed excited to see a new Coscarelli film, left the late night showing in a hushed silence without applause.  The word "sucks" was heard as I exited.  Yeah, it was bad.  And I don't mean like "cult-bad", I mean "bad-bad".  There was one point toward the end where you think it's over, and unfortunately it's not.  Unless you go into it stoned off your a$$ and have nothing else better to do, don't waste your time.
    • jah p
      I heard the same thing about this...I'm hoping I"m wrong about it...
    • Guest
       Well,I liked the book and if they are sticking to the source material the movie can't be that bad. Also there's this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zqc4lEJJ2L8        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_c6Ttd1iVU8 The vibe I get from it is that the audience enjoyed themselves.  Seems to me it's one of those polarizing movies .Either people love it or hate it.
      • Guest
        Dammit, the cast must have gone to a different screening than the one I went to!!  Aargh!  Well, I still stand by everything I said.  The audience clearly did not like it at my midnight screening, and in fact quite a few people left before it was over.  And also, don't ever mistake enthusiasm for seeing famous people at a film festival Q&A with enthusiasm for enjoying a "quality" film.  ;)
        • Guest
            That's true,but I am still optimistic :) .I guess I just have to wait and watch it for my self.
  • SuicidalOptimist
    The trailer to this did look absolutely nothing like what I imagined while reading the book, which to me had sort of a 'Shawn of the Dead' on acid vibe.  I couldn't imagine how anybody would possibly succeed in bringing all those crazy monsters to life on screen. Meh, I loved the book. I can live without the movie. 

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