While attending an outdoor party that his best friend John’s amateur Midwestern punk band are performing at as the local headliners, troubled college drop-out David Wong (Chase Williamson) saves a one-handed slacker girl called Amy Sullivan (Fabianne Therese) from being bullied by dim-witted wannabe gangsta Justin White (Jonny Weston), and attempts to debunk the paranormal claims of a Jamaican Rastafarian (Tai Bennett) calling himself Robert Marley, who deals in a mysterious, slithering mercury/tar-like narcotic called ‘Soy Sauce’. Dave later happens to find Amy’s oddly over-intelligent dog Bark Lee waiting for him near his Ford Bronco, and discovers John (Rob Mayes) acting weirdly back at his flat, after receiving a bizarre phone call asking him to come over and arriving there to find the place completely wrecked and covered in blood. It turns out that John earlier bought a vial of the illicit substance from Marley after the gig, and is now the only survivor of a group of party-goers who have consumed a stash of this sinister Sauce … which is in fact revealed to be a living, microscopic, shape-shifting demonic entity that radically alters the perceptions of the taker, facilitating psychic abilities and an awareness of alternate realities, as well as a menagerie of other bizarre pan-dimensional creatures that live all around us. Unfortunately, the Sauce also makes one vulnerable to possession from malevolent shadow spirits and swarms of wasp-like parasites that have the power to control human bodies before gorily consuming them from within when they’ve finished with them.
When Dave accidentally pricks himself on a hypodermic filled with Soy Sauce, Dave and John find themselves tasked with battling a horde of such hideous creatures from other dimensions; initially setting themselves up as amateur demon hunters, they come up against headless zombie Nazis, swarming leech monsters, malevolent demons and grotesque giant spider-scorpions that cannot be seen directly, but only out of the corner of one’s eye. After going on the run with Amy (whose Phantom Limb Syndrome comes in handy for opening ‘ghost doors ‘into other realities, and such) and Bark Lee (who becomes a conduit for communication with a future version of John), the slacker duo discover that the distribution of the Sauce is all part of the master-plan of a vast, malevolent, one-eyed Lovecraftian cosmic brain creature from another dimension, called Korrok (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson): a sentient biological computer, created long ago in an alternative version of Earth’s history, Korrok is now so powerful that it can dominate the psyche of all other living beings, and is plotting to invade our own reality and reduce Earth to apocalyptic rubble. Despite finding occasional help from the god-fearing DI Appleton (Glynn Turman) and a cheesy cable TV psychic seer called Marconi (Clancy Brown), who is accompanied everywhere by his model-pretty, dark-suited female twin assistants, Dave and John find themselves plunging through a portal to another reality, on the other side of which is a rustic pink-skied world inhabited by a religious fraternity of nubile nude women wearing plastic joke shop masks -- which is where the two friends must face the ultimate nemesis of every living soul on planet Earth.
It’s difficult to argue that there is any other director currently working today who could be considered more artistically in tune with and suited to the task of adapting Jason Pargin’s cult novel (written under the pen name of its lead character David Wong) for the big screen than Don Coscarelli. His work includes such popular fare as the original “Beastmaster”; the warm-hearted family comedy “Kenny & Company”; and the imaginative adult fantasy comedy-horror of “Bubba Ho-Tep”; but he is still best known and revered for his “Phantasm” series: a franchise currently sporting four entries released between 1979 and 1998, which successfully fused comedy and horror in a newly inventive fashion, heightening their subject matter’s fantasy-orientated outlandishness and Gothic surrealism without debasing the nightmare dread which lay at the root of the idea behind the original movie about a grave robber from another world known as The Tall Man, played so memorably by Angus Scrimm.
Pargin’s novel occupies similar territory to Coscarelli’s ground-breaking quartet of horror features. Writing about the novel for Horrorview in 2011 I described Pargin’s 400 page opus as ‘a hallucinogenic work of unbounded cosmic terror, absurdist body horror and sublime existential dread, but with a few jokes thrown in’, and noted how ‘the author’s narrative systematically managed to conjure a genuine sense of menace and cosmic dread and yet finds the ability to switch gears in an instant, taking long comedic digressions into fantastic absurdist whimsy.’ Such a description could very well equally be applied to a summery of the appeal of “Phantasm” and its three increasingly offbeat sequels, but the complement can also be returned when we consider how the basic framework of the novel (which started life as a collection of on-line writings) echoes that found in all four of Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” films, mainly structuring the action around the experiences of two ordinary guy protagonists (and the occasional associates they meet along the way) on a road trip sojourn through a hazy Midwestern America being assailed and systematically decimated by alien/supernatural forces from another dimension. “John Dies at the End”, then, appears to be a property that was just begging to be taken in hand by the maverick genius who pretty much invented this genre of fantastical, Gothic-horror-meets-SF-freakery in the first place.
All this sounds like I’m building up to one humongous BUT, and in a way I am. Although there’s nothing per se wrong with this movie in isolation, when considered purely on the terms of its competence in the market as a fairly low-budget, independently produced horror comedy – indeed, when compared to most recent examples of the genre, it rates pretty highly – as an adaptation of the original source novel it couldn’t be more ‘meh’ if it tried.
There was, as Coscarelli himself has freely acknowledged, simply no way that every single memorable instance of the sprawling madness which features within Pargin’s published pages could be translated onto the screen in full without the resultant work being at least four-and-a-half hours long and almost incomprehensible, but, in light of this fact, the actual approach taken to the task of translating the work into screenplay form seems to get the emphasis all wrong, and instead of attempting to create something that has the anarchic, cynical, absurd and scary spirit of Pargin’s novel, without necessarily worrying about how closely events in the film mimic those in the book, Coscarelli merely opts for combing through its pages in search of a selection ofcinematically workable scenes (or those he can afford to reproduce, at any rate) that can be brought together in a simplified way while dumping the rest, stitching the surviving portions together by importing the book’s framing device, used by the author to generate the distinctive first person narrative voice which guides us through events of increasingly deranged provenance in the novel. That voice carries a sarcastic slacker wit that reads on the page like Douglas Adams possessed by the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, presenting to the reader the most luridly fantastical subject matter as though it were reportage from the outer dimensions of an expanded consciousness, sent to inform you of the scarcely guessable hidden secrets of the Universe hidden in plain sight behind such mundane everyday questions as: why, when driving along a stretch of roadway, does one invariably notice a single abandoned shoe left forlornly on the side of the curb?
The book’s framing portions as used in the screenplay become a rather familiar trope which simply binds the various narrative episodes culled from the novel and then tops them off at the end with a pay-off ‘twist’ revelation. It has Paul Giamatti (“12 Years a Slave”, “Saving Mr Banks”) as middle-aged, corduroy-wearing journo Arnie Blondestone, sceptically listening to David Wong’s story over the table of a Chinese restaurant as Wong recounts a string of increasingly harder to believe incidents, and gradually, reluctantly, coming to believe his insane-sounding ravings might actually be the truth. Giamatti’s performance is, in fact, one of the highlights of the movie, and newcomers Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes also display a natural comic repartee that results in them coming across as extremely likable characters when together on the screen; and yet there is something essential that’s key to the novel missing from this film.
We still get many of its most memorable episodes, such as the encounter with a monster that’s been assembled entirely from frozen supermarket meat brought to life from the freezer of a client’s cellar – an effect created, as are almost all of the movie’s FX, courtesy of Coscarelli’s long-time collaborator Robert Kurtzman and his special effects team, who make a virtue of using mainly old school, real-world effects rather than CGI. Even so, there are many, many portions of the book that have disappeared completely, including some of the crazier sections such as the instance in which our heroes find themselves battling wig monsters at a psychic convention while dressed in costumes found on Elton John’s tour bus. But the real reason why the film never attains anything like the level of greatness of “Phantasm” or “Bubba Ho-Tep” is that it fails to match the humorous qualities of the text with the creepier aspects Pargin was also able to imbue his sense of comic surrealism with on the page. Weirdly, “Phantasm” feels much closer in style and atmosphere to what the novel presents than does this adaptation, which recounts recognisable scenes from the book but in a manner that dispenses with the more disturbing plot points completely and concentrates on presenting something that feels altogether more digestible for a mainstream audience. The sheer brain-blistering head fuck of the book has come out seeming merely quirky and ‘offbeat’ here, and the small budget really tells at times too, especially when Coscarelli is faced with the challenge of visualising Korrok – a supposedly cosmic, pan-dimensional being of unlimited mental power that ends up here being rendered as an unprepossessing rubber brain with a single eye.
That’s not to say that this realisation of “John Dies at the End” doesn’t entertain as a piece of solidly crafted, well-made genre material, but it seems unlikely that we’ll be returning to it in the future as often as we are still returning to Coscarelli’s haunting “Phantasm” movies. The potential was present in the source material for a movie version to be made that could have been a truly memorable addition to the genre, but what we have instead is merely a mildly diverting, well-paced and engagingly enough performed comedy-horror that soon merges into the wallpaper despite such virtues. This movie, then, is a sadly missed opportunity.
The UK Blu-ray edition of “John Dies at the End” presented by Eureka Entertainment features extras not present on the bare-bones DVD release, which include a cast and crew commentary with Coscarelli acting as moderator in a light-hearted trot through memories from the making of the movie; deleted scenes which tend to be merely dialogue cut for pacing reasons rather than extra scenes from the novel that didn’t make it into the movie; several short ‘making-of’ featurettes: “Getting Sauced” (a six-minute look at the background to the production of the film) and “Creature Corps” (nine-minute special effects feature with Robert Kurtzman); plus casting session videos, an interview with Paul Giamatti conducted by former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, and a theatrical trailer.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!