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February 2014

John Dies At The End

cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, and Paul Giamatti

director: Don Coscarelli

99 minutes (15) 2012
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka blu-ray region B
[released 17 February]

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

John Dies At The End

Despite being enormously successful in both its literary and tele-visual incarnations, urban fantasy remains something of an under-represented cinematic genre. Born of the 1980s but defined by the cultural contours of 1990s American life, urban fantasy combines the contemporary urban settings, gritty prose style and narrative focus of hardboiled crime fiction with tropes imported from traditional works of fantasy and horror. Popularised by writers including Laurell K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison, who were themselves inspired by the works of earlier pioneers including Emma Bull and Anne Rice, urban fantasy DNA can be found not only in Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer but also in less widely celebrated geek shows including Supernatural, Teen Wolf, and Grimm.

A charitable account of urban fantasy's lack of cinematic incarnations is that the genre is all about immersion and character. Urban fantasy stories are unapologetically escapist and, in order to immerse oneself in the dark and wonderful demi-monde that exists at the heart of every city, one needs more time than your standard Hollywood movie has to offer. Similarly, in order to truly appreciate in-depth characterisation and long-term shifts in the relationships between characters, one needs the kind of broad canvas that only TV series and novels can provide. A less charitable account of urban fantasy's lack of cinematic incarnations is that urban fantasy shares about 90 percent of its DNA with paranormal romance, and capturing urban fantasy's overwhelmingly female fan-base seldom seems to figure in the plans of male Hollywood producers obsessed with attracting the attention of teenage boys.

Given the structural and social barriers involved in getting a work of urban fantasy made for the big screen, it is perhaps unavoidable that most marketing departments try to position works of urban fantasy as being part of more socially acceptable genres. Thus, The Matrix trilogy was successfully marketed as a work of science fiction, while the cowardly and ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Hellblazer comics was described as a 'supernatural action-thriller' lest girl-cooties alienate the intended audience. John Dies At The End continues this somewhat inglorious tradition with a PR campaign that tries to distance the project from the literary context that inspired the original novel, and reposition the film as the kind of gonzo horror/ comedy you would expect from the man responsible for both the Phantasm series and Bubba Ho-Tep. In fact, much of John Dies At The End's demented charm comes from the fact that Don Coscarelli spends the entire film at loggerheads with his own plot.

John Dies At The End begins with its hapless but easily relatable protagonist being sucked into a weird and wonderful demi-monde that exists in and around the real world as we know it. The hapless protagonist in question is David Wong (Chase Williamson), a generically handsome young man who has acquired a set of psychic powers that allow him and his hetero life partner John (Rob Mayes) to battle ghosts, demons and aliens. After a spirited introduction that looks an awful lot like an episode of Supernatural, the film hops forward to a time when Wong is considering selling his story to the media via a sceptical journo played by Paul Giamatti (who also acted as producer). Told almost exclusively in flashback, the film is effectively an origin story for 'David Wong: Monster Hunter'.

David and John are losers; John plays in a rubbish band and David mopes about the place thinking about girls until the pair encounter a creepy fake-Jamaican guy who gives John a dose of a new drug called Soy Sauce. Initially, the drug seems like little more than a hallucinogenic, and Coscarelli has enormous fun playing with a cascade of delusional tropes that eventually solidify into something resembling a fantastical realm. Soy Sauce, it turns out, is an alien substance that allows users to see the world as it really is. The more Soy Sauce you use, the more open to the world you become, and the more open to the world you become, the more likely it is that sinister forces will take notice of you and begin trying to either use or consume you.

Stripped back to brass tacks, the plot of John Dies At The End is that of a generic work of urban fantasy: the film begins with its protagonist being presented with a portal that transports them to a strange new world (or rather a strange corner of the 'real' world). Once inside the portal, the protagonist is subjected to a huge wave of weirdness that must be overcome in order for the protagonist to survive. Like most forms of fantasy, the urban variety is a subgenre in which the logic of stories permeates the world, and so the initial weirdness experienced upon passing through the portal can be dissipated by a character learning to 'read' the world, while finding a way of positioning themselves inside the story (either by fitting into the body of an existing prophecy or carving out a niche in an existing power structure).

A lot is made of these types of work being little more than power fantasies, but the power in question stems not from the ability to kill monsters but the ability to make sense of a world that seems as complex and realistic as our own. The fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that escapist literature is a form of spiritual literature, as both are about satisfying the urge to live in a world that makes sense at a human level. In order to satisfy this urge, works of urban fantasy like John Dies At The End are built around the idea of a world that, despite initially seeming incredibly weird and intimidating, surrenders itself to human understanding as the story progresses. The problem is that Coscarelli was manifestly not interested in helping his audiences escape and so he spends large sections of the film in open revolt against his own narrative structure.

John Dies At The End is undeniably at its best when Coscarelli has the weight of the plot behind him. After beginning with a slightly generic monster fight, the film expands into a wonderfully drug-addled vision of suburban teenage life. Wong does not find his portal at the back of an old cupboard or in the urgings of Churchillian wizards; he finds it in a dirty syringe obtained from a drug dealer at the back of a punk rock show. Trapped somewhere between a Philip K. Dick-inspired reboot of the stoner comedy Dude, Where's My Car?, and the terrifying brown acid version of Scooby-Doo, Wong wanders through a dark suburban landscape in search of a tripping friend only to realise that he has accidentally taken the exact same stuff. As the drugs begin to kick in, Wong is confronted by a torrent of questionable authority figures and quite possibly non-existent monsters revealing a landscape distilled from the essence of every disastrous night out and every time you kept going when you should have gone home and slept it off.

Once the portal is passed and the world begins resembling the inside of a story, Coscarelli finds himself having to fight to maintain the integrity of his drug-addled landscape. Much less engaging than the first, the film's second act is only kept alive by some glorious practical effects work and some understated CGI that just about maintains the weirdness quotient while setting up an engaging but predictable final act in which a group of alien townspeople celebrate the arrival of their messiahs by showing them a cartoon about the day giant spiders came out of the ground and started eating people. Turns out it all started with someone trying to crossbreed a bull with a shire horse.

The real problem with John Dies At The End is that Coscarelli fundamentally misunderstood his source material. Despite being filled with weird and wonderful ideas, Jason Pergin's novel is a generic urban fantasy novel, and so what weirdness the book contains is there not as an end in itself but as something to be overcome and mastered in order to satisfy the reader's spiritual need for escape. Clearly more interested in mind-curdling weirdness, Coscarelli places his emphasis in an entirely different place to that of the novel. It is not uncommon for films to radically reinterpret their source material but when the producers of Apocalypse Now set out to relocate Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness to the Vietnam War, they did so with a John Milius script that went out of its way to explore the existential aspects of the source material.

By contrast, Coscarelli's script replicates the source material's need to create a comprehensible world resulting in some absolutely absurd scenes in which the director furiously injects weirdness into every shot only for the characters to immediately undermine the weirdness by explaining what it means and how it works. With a little less exposition, John Dies At The End could have resolved its internal tensions and become a 21st century The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (in fact, one of the original Hong Kong Cavaliers appears as an ambiguous mentor for John and Dave) but, instead of a triumph of weirdness and imagination, we have a fun and well-made slice of cinematic urban fantasy that is engaging enough despite never feeling special.

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