Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Film Review: John Dies at the End (2012)

Last week, the BFI London Film Festival brought 327 films to London and broke new records for attendance. One of those films, which was screened twice in the same week, was John Dies at the End, an adaptation of the cult Internet-born comedy horror novel by David Wong. The architect of this film is Director Don Coscarelli, known for similar cult classics in the genre Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series, who took on the project after reading the second release of the novel prior to its major-publisher signing way back in 2007. As a long-time reader of the novel in its online and three separate printed incarnations and a definite fan of the book, this was another long-awaited release, and I attended both screenings. I can't be anywhere near as analytical about films as I can about music, but now I'm one of a relatively small number of lucky viewers to have seen it, I have to discuss this one. I'm not going to discuss the plot much, but I'll mention some things that might spoil elements of the book if you've not experienced it yet. If you have read the book, then this is spoiler-free for you as far as plot is concerned.

Firstly it's hard to imagine anyone better suited to the material than Coscarelli. I saw the first two Phantasm films after the identity of the film's director was announced, and while the horror genre is never going to be my favourite, both of those impressed me. He knows how to get the most out of a modest budget, he gets the settings and mood right, everything shot so well, the editing is exactly what you need AND, most significantly, he does seem to be able to get the right performances out of the actors – even if their skills let them down. The kind of visuals and effects Coscarelli exploit often are a bit rudimentary by top-flight Hollywood standards but they look right and they work. With John Dies, Coscarelli clearly got enough money to make most of the weird and wonderful stuff in this film how he felt it should look and there are pretty much no moments where you find yourself thinking anything looks cheap. The Meat Monster looks bloody brilliant. My own imagination couldn't do a better job, I honestly thought that how the film portrays the formation of this beast out of a collection of frozen meat was better than anything I can come up with in my own head. The rest of the this scene, adapted from the strong first chapter of the book and remaining very close to the start of the film, is barely altered from the book and everything fits well, giving the film as bright a start as possible.

The soy sauce is black and evil looking, the cinematography and editing surrounding Dave's exposure to the sauce and his search for John really puts you alongside him, and the other monsters and weird and wonderful stuff? They evoke the same creepiness as described by Wong AND the humour is completely in place. Coscarelli has completely nailed the book's weirdest and funniest moments – the is-it-the-same axe prologue scene, the door that cannot be opened and the fake cop's flying moustache particularly stick out as examples of the latter. The only things a fan of the book could complain about is things cut for time – everything we still have looks just right. Also on the visual front there's none of the irritating modern tricks like obnoxious computer-generated-imagery, oversaturated orange-and-teal palette or, my personal pet peeve, shakycam. This looks bright in the daytime and dark but not dingy or blue in the night, giving Undisclosed a feeling like the slightly shabby American town it should be (on the surface at least) not a grim, unreal Hollywood setting. The clarity of the images mean that all of what Coscarelli shows in the well-designed scenery, actors performances and his great props and effects is uninhibited by any superfluous bullshit.

Superfluous is a word you couldn't give to anything in this film, in fact. It's based on a big book, which when originally self-published by the author had to be printed in the “manual” format, as they didn't have any more sensible paperback form factors of sufficient length. Coscarelli admitted before both showings that if it would take too long to sit through, be too expensive to shoot and take too much time away from the plot, it's not here. This means that there is quite a lot of stuff which hasn't made it.

What has Coscarelli kept? Almost all of the core plot of the book's (arguably strongest) first half, bringing you into this world and getting to know Dave, and with it the quick pace of events that follow John and Dave's first exposure to the sauce. While there are bits missing from this, notably some lines and some bits of characterisation as well as one or two significant characters from the book, the thrust of these chapters is replicated incredibly well. That part of the book is a real page-turner and the film keeps that up, even without a pile-up of pointless action scenes you might get in a poor Hollywood film. The events and images that give the world of the book life are all here. The only thing I really missed from this is Las Vegas – they don't go there in the film, and this is unfortunate as the events that unfold there contain some of the book's highlights.

The film's ending has less of the complexity and a considerable reduction in the number of locations from the book. The plot taken by the film's ending streamlines the events so much that to a reader of the book they feel a bit rushed and off-kilter compared to the fairly loyal start of the film and there are definite liberties taken with this narrative here. Nevertheless an even more weird and wonderful world is entered (and time taken to give it some character), the antagonist is still confronted, and the humorous tone remains intact, with John and Dave remaining the inept and unlikely heroes up against odds they have no hope of understanding. There's also a lot of exposition in this act but it is handled pretty well. The revelation of Korrok and the world he dominates is carried out reasonably smoothly and without relying on clunky dialogue, and there's even a very brief transition to animation for a scene here. I'm not sure if the animation is for budget reasons or style reasons, but it works. The epilogue, like the prologue, is kept almost unaltered as well and thus you leave the cinema with a similar feeling in mind to closing the final page of the book. The alterations to the ending are almost certainly going to irk some of the book's fans, but I can see why they've been made – to keep the momentum of the first half going, stop the audience from being overloaded with too much batshit insanity, and to prevent the runtime creeping up. If there is a continuum between eventful, action packed films and slow-paced cerebral ones, this film is definitely much closer to the former, and the decision to keep the pace up and keep the film's narrative concise rather than elongated is a decision that I completely support from a film-making standpoint.

For this reason, I also have to swallow one of my personal disappointments with the film – and that is the absence of the book's middle section. As I just said, this is a pacey film, it takes it's time when it needs to but the thrust that underpins the book's first half and ending is preserved and therefore the whole film is consistent in this respect. This means that the just as compelling, but slower-paced middle of the book is not part of the film's story. We have less time to get to know Dave, far less time to get any insight into John, and Amy is almost a complete mystery to us – she is part of the plot but does not have much of the character she reveals in the book, which is entirely in this section. This missing part had some of my most-enjoyed scenes in it as the events of the book's opening subside to a more tense and creepier narrative which also features the only part of the book told from John's perspective to Dave, as much of an unreliable narrator as John is. I completely understand once again why this has been done. If they wanted to make a film with ALL the detail and flavour of the book we'd be looking at at least two films here, and they'd have to deal having a fast opening, tense middle and explosive finale which is difficult to execute correctly. So this part is gone, for better or worse.

The performances in this film from the actors are pretty good, it has to be said. Fabienne Therese's Amy is believable, although as I said a lot of her character is not revealed to us, while John is played as cockily and as self-assured as I had hoped by Rob Mayes. Mayes definitely has the look for this, the presence and the delivery, and if the film had called for more of John's characterisation from the book I think he could have pulled it off. Unfortunately although his sense of humour shines through he doesn't get some of his best lines. The film is therefore even more Dave's story than the book is, and luckily Chase Williamson is up to this role as well.

The film's Dave feels a bit less sarcastic than Dave in the book, without his narration to help us get into his head, but Williamson's performance has the right nuances to it and we do get some of the missing information. I particularly noticed in his dialogue with Arnie - as Dave knows things that would scare Arnie shitless – how the tone his voice and facial expressions let the audience know that whatever Arnie is about to be told, it's some weird shit. The film's Dave is a little deadpan at times, perhaps suffering from the fact that not all the narration can be turned into dialogue, but thankfully Williamson's no wooden actor and when you get into Dave's internal monologue it's so well voiced and carefully cut into the action it's about as good as you can get on film - one choice edit that stood out to me is when he's being interviewed by the Detective and the sauce is taking effect, there's a rapid, almost-subliminal, jump cut to Dave grinning where he was looking confused and scared before, which very quickly cuts back to the scenario. While I miss bits of Amy and John's characterisation, we don't get let down with Dave from either an acting or direction standpoint.

Paul Giamatti gets Arnie pretty much exactly right and the chemistry and timing of the scenes he has with Williamson alone frame this film perfectly, while still giving you some idea of what both Dave and Arnie are actually like. Williamson's Dave also interacts with Detective Lawrence “Morgan Freeman” Appleton in his two major scenes and Glynn Turman is a very commanding presence in this role, showing just the right mix of authority with a hint of suspicion and slowly growing trepidation at the shit that's going down in his town. Clancy Brown doesn't get a lot of screen time as Marconi but he makes the part fit it's altered role in the film, seeming more larger-than-life than I had imagined the old spiritualist in the book. Doug Jones' role as Roger North isn't a big one either but it's great to finally see him in-the-flesh without CGI or prosthetics, and his scenes aren't long but his portrayal is as creepy as you'd expect from him, all hollow eyes, long fingers and soft but determined line delivery.

Now that I've written far more than I thought I'd be able to, let me conclude by saying that you should definitely see this film. Coscarelli's direction is brilliant, noticeable even to a film philistine like me and Williamson is a great Dave. This is interesting as a film in its own right, and might even be more satisfying to those with no knowledge of the book who won't have my adaptation concerns marring the experiences – on my second viewing I saw the film with a friend who's never read the book, and she loved the visual aesthetic, plot and especially the laughs. It most certainly does not need to rely upon its source material for its appeal. My recommendation would be even stronger if you like horror genre films, off-kilter humour and independent films in general, and if you're a fan of Don Coscarelli, there's no question that this is a must-see movie and you should check it out as soon as you can. Coscarelli has done David Wong proud, and I'm not surprised Wong himself likes the film so much and has no argument at all with how it turned out. You don't get my favourite bit of the book – but you get all the excitement, and you get drawn into this world, having plenty of weird experiences and laughs on the way.

The official website of the film: http://johndies.com/

P.S. Ok I have a nitpick. If they took the trouble to put a real Three Arm Sally in the film - and "Camel Holocaust" actually sounds ok - why doesn't it have three bass players?

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