I really wanted “John Dies At the End” to be a better movie than it is. There is so much potential, not only in the source material—the novel of the same name by David Wong—but also in the story itself. Unfortunately, the film never capitalizes on the enormous upside. Not a terrible movie—it’s fun enough for a while, and director Don Coscarelli (“Phantasm”) delivers the material with the dry, matter of fact tone that complements the absurdity of the premise, much like he did in “Bubba Ho-Tep”—“JDATE” never becomes anything more than a mildly amusing picture. This could, and maybe should, have been something we’d rave about and line up to see at midnight screenings for years to come.
Wong’s book is far from perfect. It starts out strong, full of chaotic madness, but by the time you get to the final third, it drags and rambles, and you feel like it’s just going through the motions. I hoped the adaptation might fix this, pare down some of the excess, and maintain the manic energy and pace. Instead it goes in almost the exact opposite direction. The film trims so much—you can tell much of what was left out was due to budget constraints—that the characters are never more than one-trick ponies, and the script glosses over enough, combing storylines and people, that much of the movie doesn’t make sense unless you’ve read the book.
The story follows a protagonist named David Wong (Chase Williamson) and his buddy John (Rob Mayes). That’d be way meta if only the name David Wong wasn’t already a pseudonym. They’re like a pair of slacker paranormal investigators. Imagine if the entire Ghostbusters team was comprised only of Peter Venkmans. Over the years they’ve seen some serious stuff, and the film bounces around in time as Dave recounts his and John’s various escapades to Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a snarky reporter.
In the first act the narrative stays fairly true to the book. You’ll laugh your ass off as John’s band pounds through their song “Camel Holocaust” at an outdoor rager. This is also where the film is the strongest. Coscarelli captures and channels the inventive madcap lunacy of the inspiration, and you feel like you may be watching something along the lines of “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” or “Big Trouble in Little China.” A young girl’s body dissolves into snakes, a doorknob becomes an enormous penis, and the duo battle an 8-foot-tall monster made out of meat.
What kicks off David and John’s abilities and adventures is a chance encounter with a new drug called Soy Sauce, a drug not of this world. What it does is heighten your senses almost to the point of overload, to where your brain takes every possible bit of stimulus. It opens the floodgates and lets in everything. You remember things that haven’t happened yet, know things you couldn’t possibly know—like other people’s dreams—and allows you to jump between dimensions. Most of all, the drug is about the shadows. The Sauce reveals the hidden horrors of the everyday world, and gives you direct sight of the things that you normally only experience obliquely, the things you only think you see moving in the darkness out of the corner of your eye.
“John Dies at the End” comes off the rails when it moves beyond the set up phase of the game, starting with the characters. They’re just a shell of what they should be. David is a generic smart ass, which he is in the book, but he’s also so much more, like an actual person with feelings and thoughts that are more than sarcastic replies. And worst of all, John is barely present in the movie. Mayes, with is wicked smile and pointy eyebrows, does a good job with what he has, but you’re deprived of spending much time with this devilish lunatic. Everyone has that one friend that every time you hang out together you wind up with a crazy ass story to tell. John is that guy, the one that gets Dave into hot water whenever they’re together, but that he just can’t say no to. You, however, rarely get to experience his mischievous tendencies.
I hate comparing the film and the book so much. Most of the time I’m fine with making changes in the adaptation process—these are two very different mediums after all—but it illustrates exactly what the film does wrong. Perhaps reading the book first poisoned me against the movie, but I’m relatively positive that I’d notice the same flaws without prior knowledge. Like hey, Clancy Brown shows up as a crazy spiritualist rock star on TV, where did he come from and why the hell are they in an underground tunnel all of a sudden?
The biggest problems are things that the book actually does well. The novel is largely episodic, and the last two-thirds of “John Dies at the End” bounces along through all of these encounters, touching on some, skipping others, and never really getting into any of them. The film is nothing more than an empty exercise, a mixed bag of various genre tropes and gore, one that starts strong only to finish with a beaten whimper. That’s why it is such an overwhelming disappointment.