DISCUSSION: John Dies at the End (2012)

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JOSH:  Kara and I both dig the novel John Dies at the End. I just stumbled upon it a couple years ago, hoping to find a horror story that would actually scare me. That wasn’t exactly JDatE’s strongest suit, but I loved its perverse sense of humor, trippy meta-narrative, and blasts of ultra-gore. And who would seem better to visualize that story than Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep director Don Coscarelli?

KARA:  Exactly, and the general consensus in the horror world seemed to be that genre fans felt safe with this cult favorite in Coscarelli’s capable hands. That said, one could easily argue that JDatE falls into the well of un-filmable books, in good company with Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. While the filmability of JDatE is up for debate, it can’t be denied that fans have taken a certain ownership of the book that at least makes adaptation difficult; if movies like these are made for the built-in audience created by the books (myself included), attention has to be paid to the pieces of these books that are most important to them.

JOSH:  Definitely. And if you’re a fan of the book, how much you like the movie will depend on what aspects of the book you like the best. Coscarelli pulls out a lot of the book’s weirdest, most over-the-top moments so that the movie never suffers from a lack of visual whizz-bang. Creepy meat monsters, flying moustache demons, exploding heads… the special effects aren’t always top-notch, but you’ve got to give the film’s whole crew credit for finding any way at all to visualize the book’s insanity, especially on such a low budget. At times, though, you might find yourself asking… “Wait – what the fuck happened to the story?”

KARA: …and this was a real problem for me, since some of my own favorite parts of the book were tragically absent from the film (read:  everything in Vegas, and probably all the stuff at Amy’s house, to name a few). I mean, leaving everything in would turn it from a 90-minute movie into a five- or six-hour trudge, so cutting SOMETHING is a necessary evil – for instance, I didn’t completely mind the combining of characters in Amy and Jennifer Lopez – BUT Jennifer is still an interesting character, and she informs Dave’s character a lot. I guess what I’m trying to say is that for me, cutting some of the plot points that they cut kind of endangers the way the audience learns to care about these characters – especially Dave and John. And if you don’t care about those guys, the whole thing is screwed from the get-go. I don’t think they got it all totally right in this respect.

JOSH: Yeah, some of the character changes killed me. Even if you haven’t read the book, you’ll still probably end up looking at Amy and going, “Who the hell is this, why does she only have one hand, and why the fuck does Dave care about her so much? ” Seriously, her entire character becomes Sullen Girl With Fake Hand. And you can say the same thing about John’s character. The dude is supposed to be the over-the-top, spastic friend who is (kind of) a decent guy at heart, but is really just a bizarre nut-job who you’re embarrassed to be seen with in public. Here, Rob Mayes plays him as just a skinny frat boy who’s too loud (read: a frat boy.) Chase Williamson does a good job of making Dave (our hero) feel genuinely weary of all the supernatural shenanigans, and of John’s bullshit in general. Otherwise, the characters come up pretty flat.

KARA: “Flat” would be a good descriptor for how I felt about this movie. One of the things I love so much about the story at its core is the way it comes alive so naturally; it has a unique way of feeling real and kind of organic while maintaining its own ridiculousness. That’s a hard one to pack into a tight 90 minutes and translate to celluloid, but it’s one of those inscrutable qualities that totally makes the difference between “decent” and “awesome”, and it just didn’t find its foothold in this adaptation.

JOSH: Yeah, I don’t want to completely rag on the movie. It’s definitely weirder and has more spark than a Hollywood version of the film would have (though I’m guessing most Hollywood studios would stay far, far away from this book.) But more and more, when it comes to adaptations, I find myself saying “Screw the source material.” That might sound odd after I just bitched about some of the things they’ve messed up, but those changes are pretty much just cutting things out – not rewiring the story to make it work as a film. I don’t want the heart of a story chopped out in an adaptation, but I’m fine with some major changes if it can make the film feel as organic as the book. Despite all the impressive, bizarre effects and a good performance out of Williamson, I’d rather the film version just made me give a shit about Dave and John and their whole world.

KARA:  You know, I’ve sat here picking apart the adaptation and arguing nuance, and through all that, I forgot to say that I didn’t hate this movie. I’m not sure I even actively disliked it. It wasn’t perfect, and it did have some problems, but I think some of those can be chalked up to preference and subjectivity. It did manage to capture some of the quirk and charm of the book, and hit enough of the proper emotional and plot notes that it stayed afloat; even if it felt a little bare-bones at times, it never completely fell apart.

I think it’s a pretty huge task to accomplish, adapting a story like this, and Coscarelli did his level best. It didn’t completely work or not-work, but there were some nice supporting-cast choices to be had, and to say that they were under-used is more a testament to their general awesomeness than a huge failing on the part of the film. I know I’m not the only person who lives in a world where – without exception – the book will ALWAYS be better than the movie. For that, there’s a part of me that wants to judge this film in a vacuum, as its own objective entity. So I say, “A” for effort, Coscarelli – now go make Bubba Nosferatu.

JOSH:

Rating: 3.25/5 ★★★¼☆ 

 

KARA:

Rating: 3/5 ★★★☆☆ 

 

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About Kara_E

Kara is a Senior Office Assistant for the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University. A past English major and lifetime writer, she has also served both as an actress and behind-the-scenes assistant for several projects with our friends at Clockwerk Pictures. Kara lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor/proofreader for international students at Indiana University, and serves as an organizer of the Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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