Sunday, 18 May 2014

John Dies at the End


Let’s face it, books suck. I mean who wants to sit and read when you can just watch it all happen on screen. Nowadays you don’t even have to bother with comic books, all the best ones have been made into films and the rest aren’t worth bothering with. People have a go at Peter Jackson for how long the Lord of the Rings films are but have you ever tried reading them? That takes fucking ages! They even have some pictures and everything.

Some books are considered unfilmable, sometimes understandably and other times that is proved wrong. Some books are ripe for filming but no-one can ever quite hit the mark, just look at the multiple attempts to adapt I Am Legend (there are talks of a Brave New World, my favourite book ever, adaptation by Ridley Scott that I am really hoping goes ahead). The main problem with adaptations is that books have the ability to give us insight on multiple strands of internal emotion in ways film just can’t ever do.
Don Coscarelli made his name with the Phantasm franchise and has remained an underground cult figure, known for his low budget b-movie style with the likes of the great Bubba Ho-Tep (let’s face it, Bruce Campbell as Elvis, how can you fail?). He is known for his comic style and trashy aesthetic, never taking himself too seriously and being incredibly happy with what he does and where he sits in the industry. I’m sure the opportunities have been there to try and break into the mainstream but he appears content to keep doing what he is doing.
Thematically John Dies at the End is probably the most ambitious of Coscarelli’s films I have seen. The story, taken from the book of the same name by David Wong, is of a pair of friends; John (Rob Mayes) and Dave (Chase Williamson) who are originally presented to us as Ghostbusters come Buffy the Vampire Slayer demon arse kickers. Working kind of in flash back, Dave tells his story to reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti) of how John and he came to obtain their mystical demon slaying abilities. After a party Dave starts recieveing strange phone calls from the eponymous John and finds out he has taken an unknown drug known only as ‘soy sauce’. Accidentally pricking himself with needle he found in John's apartment, Dave starts having some strange experiences that include premonition and the ability to perceive things others don’t.
Coscarelli's attitude to storylines
To recall the plot would take quite some time and to try and explain it would be a whole new task completely.  Seemingly based around the ability to move between parallel universes John Dies at the End picks up and leaves behind story line after story line with little explanation or exposition. Even the moments that feel like a big reveal just add to the confusion. I have to say here, I have not read the book and know little about it, as far as I can tell from the movie it is obviously pretty complex and multi-faceted. Fans of the book may be able to relate much easier with the film but I found the seemingly completely unconnected scenes that follow one after the other incredibly confusing. They play out as if they have something in common until you realise, the previous scene and the one you are watching seem to be out of completely different films.
There is a mix of mythology from one moment to the next. In one scene it is demons, the next it is ghosts, then parasitic termite/fly creatures, then a biological living super computer from a parallel dimension and then a disease ravaging the whole of the human race. As far as I can tell it is a story that jumps between several parallel universes and storylines without any indication of how and when.
I knew nothing of this film when I started to watch it, other than a few positive comments on horror podcasts, I didn’t even know it was a Don Coscarelli film. I was surprised at the sense of humour when it first started and slightly disappointed when it wasn’t one that really clicked with me. A cross between a Dogma and Bill and Ted but not quite as funny as either. When horror comedy gets it right it can be incredible, Shaun of the Dead and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil have been great modern examples of that. Here the humour is more of an overall softness of tone without any actual laugh out loud moments, except maybe for when a demon made of meat does battle with his nemesis over the phone.
The acting is good, and Paul Giamatti is as enjoyable a presence as always. Visually it seems to sit in a weird uncanny valley of b-movie cheapness and clean cut horror. The moments of cheap CGI sit uncomfortably rather than being part of the overall aesthetic. Most notably when a man’s moustache flies off his face and attacks Dave like a bat. It looks bad and probably purposefully so, but everything else up to this point had looked fairly clean cut. Admittedly the meat-man costume was pretty shoddy too, but worked in the comedic framing.
How I felt watching this film
Without knowing the source material all I can say is that I was lost. As soon as I felt like I had found myself getting to grips with what was going on, I was suddenly flung into an explanation of a story I didn't even realise needed an explanation. It is purposefully ambiguous and I have no doubt that there is actually something very clever going on beneath it all, but as a film it is completely incoherent and unfollowable. I wouldn’t call it unwatchable because it was still enjoyable, maybe best watched with at least a bit of background knowledge. Watching it without the faintest idea before starting is a confusing and frustrating experience. Maybe this was one case where the book is unfilmable, maybe this just isn’t the best adaptation that could have been made, or maybe they are both as baffling as each other. All I know is I felt deeply unsatisfied, as if someone has smashed a whole series of Sliders into a single film, picking and choosing scenes at random and pasting them together until the hour and a half time limit had been reached.

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