It’s difficult to describe a Don Coscarelli film, but you’ll know it when you see it. If anyone was going to make a movie of David Wong’s cult novel John Dies At The End, it had to be the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep.
David Wong (Chase Williamson) tells his unbelievable story to reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti). It’s the story of how a soy sauce-like substance from another dimension gave him strange powers, how he and his friend John (Rob Mayes) were forced to face grotesque monsters, and how they had to save the world from terrible destruction.
Fans of the book might reasonably wonder how Coscarelli managed to wrangle the unwieldy, rambling source material into a coherent film. The short answer is that he doesn’t; not quite.
While it’s easy to complain about what got left out, given the budget and the fact that it’s a 100-minute film rather than a 400-page novel, it’s amazing how much of the lunatic inspiration is in there.
The main problem is that, like the book, John Dies At The End peaks too early. The first 20 minutes are superb, establishing the trans-dimensional weirdness and the characters’ dazed, slightly impressed, generally irritated reaction to it. It was essential that Coscarelli get the tone right, and he nails it; a kind of slacker Lovecraft that laughs cautiously in the face of madness and threatens to punch it in the dick.
The film’s weaknesses become more apparent during the second half, as Coscarelli is forced to try and wrangle some kind of structure and an ending. This attempt at plot direction is somehow far less interesting, and even occasionally dull. However, the finale is fun, and the chances are that if you’ve got this far, you’re probably invested enough to stick with it.
The performances from Williamson and Mayes are strong, Giamatti brings infectious enthusiasm along with credibility, and Clancy Brown gives an amusing turn as celebrity paranormal expert and bad-ass Albert Marconi. John Dies At The End is certainly flawed and will irritate as many as it will entertain, but it’s a very funny, hugely inventive and decidedly likeable indie attempt at filming an insane book.