Don Coscarelli is a goddamn American Treasure. Working without the benefits of massive budgets or mainstream distribution he has crafted some of the quirkiest and most entertaining independent American horror/fantasy films of the past 35 years, beginning with the landmark Phantasm (1979) and continuing through the sword and sorcery classic The Beastmaster (1982), each of the Phantasm sequels (1988, 1994, 1998), and finally the brilliantly absurd (and vulgar) Bubba Ho-Tep (2002). The Phantasm films are some of the most idiosyncratic and imaginative original horror scripts out there, and both Bubba Ho-Tep and his new film, John Dies at the End, demonstrate a keen eye for finding material to adapt that ideally suits his twisted tastes.
Yeah, Coscarelli writes the scripts for all of his films too, because that's how American Treasures roll.
John Dies at the End is a fantastical horror film based on the amazing novel of the same name by Cracked.com's senior editor, David Wong (the pseudonym of Jason Pargin), and tells the story of David Wong and John "Cheese" as they try to stop the impending apocalypse while dealing with the bizarre effects (and side-effects) of a creepily sentient street drug nicknamed "Soy Sauce."
Those of you who are familiar with the novel know that trying to adapt it to film is a thankless, maybe impossible task, and Coscarelli does an amazing job getting as much of the insanity on-screen as is humanly possible without a Speilbergian budget. Unfortunately that means cutting out vast swaths of the novel in order to create a narrative that will make some sense to a virgin audience in a ninety-ish minute chunk.
In a perfect world, this would be a two-parter, shot simultaneously, and it would be one of the greatest things to ever happen to the genre.
Instead, what we get is an amazing first hour or so that is extremely faithful to the spirit and events of the first part of the novel's three-part structure. However, the last half-hour or so is forced to skip quickly along – more thumbnail sketch than realized story – mostly working, but falling short of the promise of the first two-thirds of the film. Hell, even an extra half-hour of film time would have given the script the room to breathe that would make this film an undeniable classic. But the demands of budgeting and getting a distribution deal probably made that a near impossibility.
As it is, John Dies at the End should develop a rabid cult following along the lines of Coscarelli's other work, but doesn't quite reach the heights he is capable of.
What really saves the end from collapsing completely is both the sheer talent behind the camera and the amazingly charismatic work of the film's trio of stars: Chase Williamson as Dave, Rob Mayes as John, and Paul Giamatti as intrepid reporter Arnie Blondestone.
The joy that is Giamatti's performance should be no surprise to anyone. The man is another American Treasure and inhabits the character of Arnie so fully that we can see the wheels turning behind his eyes as he listens and evaluates Dave's story of nightmares and monsters. He's tired and skeptical, but when confronted with the realities of the secret world that exists around him we can see the walls falling and wide-eyed excitement take hold.
Which makes his story all the more tragic in the end.
Throughout the film, Giamatti really only interacts with Williamson's Dave, which benefits Williamson as it's his first feature film and most of the narrative thrust is firmly planted on his shoulders. Everything that we see is through Dave's eyes and Williamson is perfectly cast, playing borderline insanity with a deadpan casualness that effectively captures the novel's narrative voice and lets viewers gradually acclimate to the madness alongside him.
His (sometimes barely) restrained calm is offset by the wild-eyed enthusiasm of Mayes as John. If Williamson is the keel, guiding the narrative, Mayes is the engine that sets everything in motion and provides the mad energy that helps the film pull together, even when the script falters in the end. Mayes is a more physical presence on the screen, making faces and using his entire body to react to the bizarre visions and monsters that fill this film.
When paired with Williamson's restraint, Dave and John become a comedy team that I could watch for film after film. Their timing is impeccable and they play off of each other so naturally that I had no problem believing they were lifelong friends.
The supporting cast does good work with what they're given, especially Clancy Brown as Dr. Albert Marconi, Glynn Turman as Detective Lawrence "Morgan Freeman" Appleton, and Doug Jones as the mysterious, otherworldly Roger North. Turman is the real highlight of the supporting cast, as Det. Appleton is given a character arc that allows Turman to bring his A Game before his character's gory end.
Plus, The Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, pops in for a special guest-appearance that should delight Phantasm fans.
Overall, despite the strengths of the film and the ways in which they offset the weaknesses, I'm sure many fans of the novel will be torn. Despite some of the best lines and highlights from the book (the meat monster, the door that cannot be opened, the ghost door, etc.) being included, many fan favorite moments are missing (Las Vegas in particular) and some characters are shorted or simply missing. There's also no time spent in the snow with the mystery of the body in the shed (which would have provided payoff to the magnificent opening scene) or time spent dealing with the Shadow People and building up the threat of the otherworldly antagonist, Korrok.
Coscarelli's script does the best it can to provide a complete narrative experience for the audience, his direction does an excellent job of bringing nightmares to life (usually utilizing practical effects rather than relying on CGI – until the conclusion of the film, anyway), and the cast really couldn't be any better. John Dies at the End isn't the best film Coscarelli has made, but it is definitely one of the most fun.
John Dies at the End is now available on iTunes and On Demand. It opens in theaters this Friday January 25, 2013.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.