John Dies at the End is a film about a drug called ‘soy sauce’. It’s a film about inter-dimensional hell beasts, meat monsters, and psychic powers. There’s also some stuff in there about time-traveling phone calls.
For a story that revels so deeply in the weird, the weirdest thing about John Dies at the End is that it should feel so normal.
Based on David Wong’s book of the same name, John Dies at the End is a high-concept horror-comedy that thrives on spectacle. Like an episode of The Muppets filmed in hell, its appeal lies in the charm of its extensive practical effects work, mixed with the uncanny—and often hyper-violent—portrayal of the familiar in unfamiliar bodies. John Carpenter-esque abominations and comedy blood spurts are the order of the day, here, presented single-file atop an intentionally convoluted plot of inter-dimensional travel.
Director Don Coscarelli’s treatment is, for the most part, a faithful adaptation of the original book. Much like David Wong’s work on the novel, it boils with quirky energy, and possesses an arresting command over genre tropes and clichés, sticking to a path not often taken by horror cinema.
Veering away from catch-all tales of conspiracy and doom, John Dies at the End bases its adventure on a more comical kind of horror: that of waiting lines, lone shoes on the side of the road, and stoner-logic existential crises; the sort of thing that, as one character puts it, would make ‘Franz Kafka’s head explode’. The strength of David Wong’s source material shines through at every given opportunity.
As a relatively low-budget production, John Dies at the End is also gleefully aware of its own shortcomings, and handles the rougher edges of its extensive effect work—as demanded by the book—with a practiced wink and a smile. Rubber spiders hug faces with a slight limpness in their legs, while heads explode with a calculated ‘pop’ from the inside out. In a welcome break from the mature cheddar theatrics of a SyFy adaptation like Sharknado, there’s no ‘so good it’s bad’ posturing in John Dies at the End, just a sincere revival of the sort of effects work that films like The Thing and The Fly built their reputation on. In a raw visual sense, John Dies at the End is a welcome return to the days of oozing, plastic monstrosities (even if it does fall victim to some CGI indulgence in its final act).
Unfortunately, it does little as a film that the book doesn’t already achieve, and beyond the allure of its surreal effects work, fails to justify its existence as a film. In the transition from page to screen, very few details have been changed to take advantage of the medium in a gripping way, and for a production that bases so much of its lore on mind-altering substances and literal holes in the space-time continuum, the non-prosthetic production feels disappointingly staid.
Wong’s book alternates between Lovecraft-caliber verbosity and a stoner drawl by the minute, giving the text a fluctuating, almost woozy feeling, and this adaptation does little to approximate it. Encounters between characters consist of stale shot-reverse-shot close-ups, intercut with the occasional bare all wide angle for prosthetic or computer animated oddities. There’s little imaginative curiosity, and it feels like the book has been mined for its quirky surface aesthetic without due consideration paid to its underlying ambiance.
Beyond the occasional tired, jilted angle or blurry close-up, the film rarely attempts to impose its weirdness on the viewer. There are a few glimmers of creativity: the use of wildly different coloured filters to represent different time periods and dimensions, for example, is a simple trick executed in a novel way, and supported, in one black-and-white instance, by an impressive shift in filmmaking technique; with an uncomfortably close focus on grinding machinery and biological occurrence that leans towards a classical surrealism. If this kind of creative decision were more prevalent, the film would service its world better; showing, rather than telling, its horrors.
Beyond these few examples, however, there’s little to shout about. Chase Williamson—no doubt hired in the lead role for his ability to conjure a thousand-yard stare—suffers from an unfortunate bout of the mumbles; delivering the film’s narration in an affectless monotone that suits the character and yet grows to test the viewer’s patience. The vast majority of the film’s dialogue has been adapted verbatim from the book, and while in text his character’s dry phrasing reads fine, read aloud for the better part of an hour and a half, it begins to grate: just another victim of the way in which the film has been adapted from Wong’s story without due consideration paid to the resulting effect on a film-going audience. The script is uncomfortably bloated, borrowing every one-liner it can from the book, often to the detriment of the film’s visual atmosphere.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s frame narrative. Mirroring the original novel, the majority of the story is relayed through a conversation with a reporter, dutifully played here by Paul Giamatti. In the book, the reporter offers Wong the opportunity to reflect on the book’s more sensory aspects, and to provide gut-responses after-the-fact. Here, however, his role is supplanted by visual and audio cues. Whereas in the novel the reporter helps space out some of the novel’s exposition, the faster pace of visual storytelling completely occupies his role in the film, leaving him as dead weight, naively mirroring in dialogue what the viewer has already seen first-hand.
Ultimately, this is the sole problem of John Dies at the End. It’s a faithful adaptation, well-acted, and for the better part well-made, hamstrung by its unfaltering dedication to the specifics of the book. In staying so staunchly representative of the original’s minutiae, it’s failed to bring Wong’s larger idiosyncrasies to the screen, leaving us with a fantastically well-crafted story in the shell of a production that should have been much, much more.