There’s something about surfing the internet when you’re a newly single twenty something drunk on cheap lager and having exhausted your own (astronomical) capacity for free porn. Browsing through the infinite digital maelstrom of bullshit and wonder, searching for something indefinable, finding mostly cats. This was back when the internet was the real internet, before it was tamed by facebook and twitter and whatever people use instead of those things now. This was back when internet culture wasn’t just… you know… culture.
That’s when I found John Dies at the End. A horror comedy novel by noted humour writer David Wong, pseudonym of Jason Pargin, the man who would go on to be editor at cracked.com.
At the time JDatE was a free to read internet adventure, updated episodically and with no gatekeeper other than site-owner Wong’s twisted imagination. What followed was a tale of dicks, monsters, mind-breaking forces of evil, dicks, inter-dimensional travel and also dicks. It was simultaneously laugh-out-loud hilarious and genuinely frightening— a balance rarely struck.
It told the tale of Soy Sauce, a drug that detaches the user from the mundane constrains of time and space, and usually ends with their explosively gory death. Told from the perspective of jaded generation X’er Dave and his affable sidekick John, the two societal dropouts find themselves to be the first line of defence in a secret invasion of inter-dimensional terrors. In short, it was my kind of story.
I’ve followed Wong’s career ever since, seeing him rise from internet dick-joke slinger to New York Times bestseller, and when Don Coscarelli— legendary director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho Tep— announced he was handling a John Dies at the End movie, I was understandably excited… but I was also a little anxious.
My favourite horror auteur and my favourite dong-horror author were joining forces, and while the capacity for awesome was abundant, the capacity for disappointment was equally so.
Thankfully, the John Dies at the End movie is a happy partnership between Coscarelli’s flair for unusual, dream-logic horror and Wong’s unsettling existential musings, while managing to keep the offbeat humour very much centre stage. For the average movie goer, the film perhaps deserves no more than its three-star Amazon ranking, but lovers of the cultish will find their buttons lovingly pushed.
The JDatE novel is an ambitious world-spanning horror adventure, where people regularly mutate into monstrosities, and demon possessed meat terrors are par for the course, so the movie adaptation suffers a little for its low budget. However, Coscarelli fans will know that the director is at his best when punching above his weight, and the loving attention to practical fx balances out the under-funded CGI work nicely.
The other major issue with the JDatE movie is its erratic run time; very much sprinting to a finish and leaving you wondering where the last half-hour of your movie went. This is in part due to the episodic narrative of the novel, which has an unfolding plot that is very unsympathetic to a traditional three act movie. As such, a lot about what made the book a truly special piece of fiction is left at the sidelines. That’s not all bad, though, as what is left in is a lovingly rendered adaptation, pleasing to fans of the novel and bringing new viewers that rarest of gifts— a horror movie that is decisively original.
With a typically magnetic performance from Paul Giamatti, and a likeable young cast of relative unknowns, John Dies at the End feels like an indie movie that shoots for the moon— falling tragically short but leaving you with one heck of a ride.
With Phantasm: Ravager in the works and Wong’s Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits crawling its way up the book charts, there’s never been a better time to rent a copy of John Dies at the End— just make sure make sure you’re ready for exploding Jamaicans, psychic hotdog phones and an ending that is heavily hinted at in the title…
Steve Wetherell is an author with DeadPixel publications, and if you’re a fan of zombies, vampires and the bastards that kill them, you might want to pick up Shoot the Dead.