To start with, yes I have indeed read the novel this based on. I read it about two years ago now and yes it was awesome. The sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders is also absolutely worth checking out, though I prefer the first book overall. When I was reading the book I knew there was a movie planned but as I made my way through it, I couldn’t figure out just how in the hell this would translate to the screen. The book is very all over the place both in terms of the narrative and events, with essentially just a bunch of random shit happening constantly. In book form it worked ok, but I couldn’t see it as a movie. Unless maybe they were planning to sacrifice a lot of the randomness in favour of a more straight-forward narrative that would have a wider appeal?
Nope, they certainly did not do that.
Ok, how in the hell do I explain the plot of this thing? We first see our hero Dave Wong meeting a reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti) in a restaurant. Dave begins to recount the story about how he developed psychic powers. It involves a drug called “Soy Sauce”, a spiky black goop that seems to be alive. Dave and his best friend John buy it from a Jamaican guy at a party they go to and after John takes it he starts to claim that he can now see creatures from alternate dimensions. Dave then takes the drug accidently and begins to experience the same phenomenon. From that point onward, I don’t think I can detail what happens but I can say it involves psychic dogs, giant tentacle monsters, creatures made of meat, phone calls from the dead, and a bunch of bugs that possess humans and refers to itself as “Shitload”. It’s more of a series of events than it is a cohesive narrative.
John Dies at the End was written and directed by Don Coscarelli, who if you’ve paying attention also did the Phantasm movies. Actually even paying attention wouldn’t have helped you because I don’t think I mentioned he was responsible for that movie in my review, so that was on me. But he totally was, and if you recall, my main thought on those movies is that they are really fucking weird. He’s the perfect fit to make this movie because again, this one is really fucking weird.
That weirdness is either going to make or completely break the movie for you, though I’m going to immediately kill that theory by saying that I fell somewhere in the middle. One thing I did like is that the characters never really acknowledge just how fucked up everything happening around them truly is. Occasionally Dave reacts startled or confused, but more often the two leads accept things at face value and it helps increase the surreal tone of the movie. The two leads by the way are fantastic in the roles of Dave and John. They’re charming and funny without taking things too over the top. They are the most down to earth thing in a bat shit insane movie. Paul Giamatti is also great as Arnie, though he’s only in there for a handful of scenes, most of them short.
The strangeness of the opening thirty minutes did hook me pretty fast and I feel is the best chunk of the movie. Everything from a philosophical riddle about an axe used to cut off a zombie’s head, the encounter with the meat monster, and the whole sequence with Dave talking to the Jamaican sauce deal are great. This whole section is funny, well-written and charmingly surreal. Then things changed and I got a little numb to the quirkiness. It’s such a non-stop barrage of random that I eventually grew a little tired of it. A few bits still work here and there, but as I said it’s more a series of individual moments than a straight narrative so you’re going to get a lot of moments that fall flat. It reminded me a lot of watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a movie I really like but have to be in the exact right mood for. That applies here too. It requires a very specific mood, preferably one involving copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.
The final act does pick things back up but it’s also where the no doubt quite low budget is the most noticeable. It is an effects heavy portion but the money is not there to do it all justice, which is not the movie’s fault. They do what they can, but it’s still clearly a group of actors standing in front of green screen backgrounds and surrounded by very computer-y effects. Again I don’t hold it against the movie but it still can’t help but be distracting. A good portion of the gore and creature effects do at least seem to be done practically, so points do go to them for that.
I think that’s about all I have to say for this one. John Dies at the End is a faithful and mostly effective adaptation of a novel that seemed damn near impossible to make into a workable movie. Some parts work great, others not so much. It’s like a bunch of puzzle pieces that don’t quite come together completely. Worth watching if you’re a fan of the book for sure, but everyone else might not be able to tolerate this one.