John Dies at the End: The Internet Meets B-Movies
I’m a week late with my review of John Dies at the End (did you notice? is anyone reading?) because the energetic horror-comedy is one of those movies that I feel bad about knocking. Pitting its pair of Midwestern slackers against every page of the Necronomicon – zombies, ghosts, aliens, Lovecraftian ancient ones, parallel universes, played white hip-hop fan stereotypes – John Dies is about as ambitious as B-movies get. I badly want to like the exuberant underdog union of cult favorite Don Coscarelli and internet-writer David Wong (aka Jason Pargin, currently making lists for Cracked). It just isn’t very good.
John Dies began as an internet serial in 2001. By 2009, it was collected, supplemented, and printed on actual paper. You could tell it was something originally written for the internet, which I know sounds like a dig, but isn’t totally. The kitchen sink approach, the digressive story structure, the narrative looseness – these are all great features born of being able to incorporate hyperlinks into your story, of writing without a stuffy editor looking over your shoulder, of building an old school web following. On the bad side? A comment thread abundance of dick jokes and a pop culture sensibility with a shelf life on par with Angelfire.
Well, the dick jokes made it in, that’s for sure.
What Wong does best in his book, and what Coscarelli most successfully adapts, is the stoned-party-conversation approach to the supernatural. John and his universe-saving partner David confront the supernatural with a Bruce Campbell inspired badass nonchalance that can become tiresome. But while the characters might exhibit comical disinterest, their creator does not. Wong exuberantly probes horror tropes for philosophical brain-food: Does human intuition indicate psychic potential? How does the eye interpret what the mind cannot comprehend? Can you contact the spirit world via a hot dog? Etc. There’s a love of the horror genre here that is palpable, and a willingness to push the genre’s boundaries that calls to mind Joss Whedon. (Was anyone writing horror stories on the internet in 2001 not a Whedon fan?)
Wong’s book is digressive, often verging on stream-of-conscious, with stories nesting within a tenuous framing structure. Coscarelli tries his best to ape that format, but what works on the page comes off as scattershot on the screen. (The big screen, at least – this whole project would’ve worked way better as a TV show.) John Dies would almost work better if nothing ever really tied together, but Coscarelli, perhaps deciding he needed a proper climax, introduces a late-game monster to serve as Big Bad, resulting in a floundering final fight with She Spies level visual effects. But then, it is a B-movie.
What really sucks is that final monster is such an attention-killer, it badly undermines the emotional climax that is to come. That goes to highlight the dissonance that runs throughout the movie – jaded cool guy vs. enthusiastic fanboy, internet writer vs. B-movie director – where the right balance between cynical laughs and actual emotion is never struck. John Dies could’ve approached Whedon, but just never gets the formula right.
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