In 2001, author David Wong (whose real name is Jason Pargin) began writing an untitled web serial about two slackers who begin to see terrifying things after downing an alien drug known only as “soy sauce.” Since parts of the serial novel were autobiographical, Pargin changed the name of his protagonist to David Wong and the name of the best friend to John Cheese. The story was dark, twisted, frightening, and extremely funny. Reading it is like reading the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft crossed with Kevin Smith’s Clerks, but better. The online serial became a cult hit and was eventually edited into a 400 page novel and published under the title John Dies at the End. Wong followed that book up with a sequel this past year titled This Book Is Full of Spiders. Why am I giving all of this history on the books, you’re asking? Because you should read the books and skip the movie.
At first blush, the melding of cult horror director Don Coscarelli’s sensibilities with David Wong’s material seems ideal. The novel was filled with surreal imagery, walking corpses, and giant insects; Don Coscarelli is an established expert at bringing horrific creatures to life on a shoestring budget. The novel managed, somehow, to be a touching, coming-of-age tale about two losers emerging into a world that really has no place for them and a mind-bending horror story at the same time. Don Coscarelli directed Bubba Ho-Tep, a surprisingly touching movie about an elderly Elvis Presley uniting with an elderly, black John F. Kennedy to combat a soul-sucking mummy in a Texas nursing home. If anyone should have been able to convey the heart and weirdness of John Dies at the End, it was Don Coscarelli.
And yet the movie doesn’t work. Most of film’s problems lay with the manner in which Coscarelli chose to adapt the source material. Coscarelli faithfully adapts the first hundred or so pages of the novel right down to the dialogue. However, as John Dies at the End passes the one hour mark, it abandons the entire middle section of the book and jumps straight to a faithful adaptation of the final thirty pages of the novel. So just to recap: Coscarelli faithfully adapted the first and last passages of the book, but completely excised the middle two thirds of the source material. The result is as jarring, muddled, and rushed as that sounds.
True to the book, John Dies at the End follows the exploits of John and David, two minimum wage slackers who find themselves entrusted with the fate of the planet after imbibing black goo. They juggle the priorities of their pitiful lives while battling zombies, meat monsters, giant spiders, and dimension-traversing beings. Don Coscarelli excels at creating gruesome creatures for the guys to battle, but the heart of the novel was left on the cutting room floor.
David Wong made John Dies at the End more about his protagonists than about science fiction or horror. All that other stuff was just a backdrop against which Wong could tell the story of two guys facing that awkward time in life between finishing school and picking a career. The humor in the story comes from the fact that John and David aren’t even suited for finding real jobs, let alone saving the world from a malevolent supercomputer. The characters were relatable, and as a result, we cared what happened to them no matter how ridiculous or implausible the story became.
Don Coscarelli faithfully adapted the story, but left all of the character development on the cutting room floor. Actors Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes do their best to breathe life into David and John, but they’re at the mercy of film’s plot. They’re left mostly to react to the onscreen weirdness, and without strong protagonists to ground the film and keep viewers invested, the film adaptation of John Dies at the End just sort of collapses into pure weirdness.
The result is an incoherent, fast-paced psychological thriller about two stoned guys running from monsters until an abrupt, rushed finale awkwardly resolves everything. There’s a lot of talent on display here: the movie boasts a strong premise, sharp dialogue, and a good cast. However, it veers off into total incoherency in its final act, and I imagine only faithful readers of the novel would stick around that long, anyway.