SXSW 2012: 'John Dies at the End', Don Coscarelli's Fun Mind-Trip
by Jeremy Kirk
March 18, 2012
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