There are so many genre (and near-genre) movies coming out every year that it’s easy to miss a good one. That’s my excuse for missing 2013’s John Dies at the End, from a book by Jason Pargin writing as David Wong. Pargin/Wong also wrote the screenplay with director Don Coscarelli. Anyway, I missed it, and I think it might end up being one of those weird little movies that becomes a midnight-showing cult classic. (I think my wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, might disagree. She didn’t seem impressed. QUICK EDIT: I’m wrong; Lynne tells me she liked it and thought it had a real “Sam Raimi” feel to it.) I hope this review is at least as coherent and comprehensible as the movie, which may not be as much as you’d think.
One of the problems with so-called “cult classics” is that they’re often extremely uneven, and John Dies at the End is no exception. I believe the book the movie’s based on has John actually dying at some point, but unless I missed something—which is entirely possible—John doesn’t actually die in the movie, permanently, because although they said he did, he was actually talking to David on the phone when he was dead. Yeah, I know, I didn’t put a spoiler alert in there before I said it. I did say “Spoilers” in the title, though, didn’t I? Problem with reviewing an old movie is that you don’t know who has seen it; with a new movie you have to alert people on just about everything. So be aware there are spoilers here. (“Here there be tygers!”)
The film begins with a riddle (Fig. 1): If you’re chopping off a Walking Dead type’s head with an axe and the handle breaks, and you replace the handle—and the guy comes back with his head sewn back on (with what looks like grass trimmer filament) and you have to chop his head off again… if the axe breaks again and you have to replace the axe head this time, is it the same axe? That, I believe is key to this film, because someone said that in the book John dies and is replaced by a clone made by a mad organic computer. So if he’s dead and is walking around, talking and everything, is it still John?
Figure 3 shows Paul Giamatti as Arnie Blondestone, who’s some kind of journalist, which is the framing device for most of the movie; David is telling the story to Arnie, which allows us to see the story “as it happens,” up to a point; there is an epilog of sorts, which I’ll get to. David, as it happens, is the focus, if not the hero, of both book and film (and the book’s sequel, which is probably unfilmable as is); he and Arnie are in a town which remains unnamed, sitting in a restaurant called “They China Food.” Guess what—it’s a Chinese restaurant. David is there to tell Arnie about a drug called (on the street) “Soy Sauce” (apt, eh?), which is a thick black liquid that is either somewhat alive or possibly rife with nanotechnology, as it moves by itself. David tells Arnie that he ingested some of it six hours ago and gave him certain abilities that will go away after a while—mind reading, remote viewing, strange knowledge—but that the aftereffects may well last the rest of his life.
A year or two after high school, David’s friend John was the lead singer of a band called “Three Arm Sally,” which was known for the popular song Camel Holocaust, whose chorus consisted of the shouted word “Hair” over and over. David met Amy at an outdoor concert by Three Arm Sally, when white wannabe urban Black dude Justin (don’t ask) stole her artificial hand (Fig. 4). (Don’t worry, Justin will get what’s coming to him.) Amy had lost her left hand in a car accident years before; David retrieved it. She was looking for her lost dog Bark Lee, who needed care after biting “Jamaican” drug dealer “Robert Marley”; the dog turned up at David’s car and accompanies him through most of the movie thereafter.
Are you confused yet? Hey, imagine the poor movie-goer. At least I could watch it several times, since it was on at least two channels this week on our satellite system. But before this happened, David and John had come to the aid of Shelly, whose dead boyfriend was harassing her; since the pair had a local reputation somewhere between Ghostbusters and Supernatural’s Sam and Dean Winchester. Because they were friends with famed psychic Dr. Marconi (Clancy Brown, looking spiffy in a goatee), they were able to help Shelly when her boyfriend’s freezer full of meat turned into a demon.
Believe me, I’m leaving out a lot of stuff here!
Moving on to the main plot, David is arrested because the Jamaican dealer was found dead, sort of exploded, and John is dying in the next room, but he’s talking to David on the phone, saying, “Hey, am I dead yet? Can you steal my body, please?” Anyway, David escapes the police and goes to the dead Jamaican dealer’s trailer; the cop follows and tries to kill him, but he’s rescued by Bark Lee, who drives David’s pickup through the trailer wall to do so. (How does the dog reach the pedals?)
To cut a long story short, Earth is being invaded by beings from a parallel universe who are actually clones or minions of an organic supercomputer named Korrok, who’s been fighting Dr. Marconi (Clancy, remember?); Justin first, then the cop, try to get a door open to Korrok’s dimension through a door that only Amy can open with her missing hand, though they’re both killed. But through the use of the Soy Sauce—which he got through biting the Jamaican, Bark Lee is able, aided by David and John, to destroy Korrok’s connection—at least temporarily—with this dimension. Korrok would have been able, had he gotten that connection open, to take over everyone in our dimension. After all that was taken care of, and back in the present, Mr. Blondstone (Giamatti) learns an unpleasant truth, and David and John—whichever John this actually is—go back to playing Pony on the basketball court. But then another dimensional portal opens and they are asked for help by a couple of studly guys wearing, I swear, the Thermian uniforms from Galaxy Quest.
There. That’s the whole movie. So I was curious enough to read the ebook version—a really long book—of the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It! It was, indeed, full of spiders. And it was a lot more coherent than the first book (my opinion is based on the movie of the first book, not the book, which I still haven’t read). I don’t think the spider book will ever be made into a movie; it’s even more bizarre than this one. And that’s where I’ll leave you. If you’re into really weird stuff (and aren’t put off by a few “penis” jokes and some naked female boobs), give this a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised. Oh, and in the second book, Bark Lee’s name is “Molly,” and she saves the day.
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