Jan 25 2013 11:00am

“It Be Opening New Worlds, Mon”: John Dies at the End

John Dies At The End movie review

Imagine that you stumble across an insane story about two college dropouts who kill interdimensional demons under the influence of the only drug that can truly satisfy the definition of “mind-altering.” You start reading David Wong’s (real name Jason Pargin) story John Dies at the End when he serializes it online from 2001-2005. Then maybe you pick up the actual novel in 2007. Finally, you watch the trailer for the movie adaptation, out in theaters today. Ten years in and three mediums conquered, is this still the same story?

Yes, and it’s just as insane as you’ve always hoped.

Writer-director Don Coscarelli has treated Wong’s source material with all the reverence it demands, while still putting it through the wringer and bringing to life the kinds of demonic shit you thought were confined to only your most bizarre dreams. I’ll tell you that, as this looks to be a prime first entry in a trippy new franchise, John doesn’t die yet. But you’ll be surprised at who does turn out to be dead in the end.

Longtime fans of the cult novel will find John Dies at the End a fearless, near-faithful adaptation. The first fifteen minutes follow the book’s first chapter almost word-for-word, making for a dizzying introduction to David’s world(s) and, more importantly, the Sauce.

The story jumps back and forth over years and dimensions: In the present, Dave (Chase Williamson) sits at a Chinese restaurant with Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), the reporter whom he alternately confides in and challenges to believe him. But he’s got a doozy of a tale to get off his chest. He needs to tell the world about how he and his buddy John (Rob Mayes) got their hands on the Sauce—the inky, fuzzy, wriggling, insidious drug that gives David and John their super-enhanced senses but also makes them reluctant guardians of the universe.

The zippy, nonlinear storytelling and epic worldbuilding will make you feel like you’ve ingested some of the Sauce yourself: Devoted fans especially will pick up on incredibly minute details and cute in-jokes slavishly recreated. But because the story is the polar opposite of straightforward, at points John Dies at the End loses its momentum and flounders. In those moments, you may find yourself wondering, Where are they going with this?

To be clear, I’ve never read the book. I have no doubt that the fans who stuck by Wong for the past decade will be nothing but thrilled with this latest evolution of the material. But as a total newbie, I found myself jarred and jolted out of fully enjoying the story. I would’ve rather had the novel as a primer before jumping into Coscarelli’s take.

That said, this was always a visual story. On camera, John and Dave’s dynamic brings to mind an odd blend of the Winchester brothers from Supernatural (minus the perceived incest and plus ALL the drugs) and the power struggle between the Narrator and Tyler Durden in Fight Club. If anything, I wanted to learn so much more about their relationship and why they put up with each other even before they became bonded by the Sauce. Hopefully that material is being saved for the eventual movie sequels.

Even though Dave is stuck playing the straight guy to John’s manic persona, the necessary translator for his occasionally-deceased friend, Williamson is utterly fantastic as our reluctant narrator. His wry, understated delivery actually underscores the craziness of the plot and makes the harebrained twists believable. And it’s even more entertaining when we get to witness him crack under the pressure.

Fans seem unanimously delighted by Hayes’ performance as the handsome, reckless John. I have to hand it to him—spending at least half the movie as a disembodied voice speaking to Dave through hot dogs and other inanimate objects, we actually witness John’s evolution as a character when faced with his own mortality and the struggle to communicate with his partner in crime across time and space.

It’s likely that any kinks or narrative missteps will get ironed out in later installments. John Dies at the End takes some patience, but your perseverance is rewarded with a chilling villain who embodies the blend of horror and comedy that characterizes Wong’s writing. Not to mention a kickass final confrontation. You already know the ending, so you might as well take some Sauce and join the adventure.

Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. Her writing has appeared on Ology and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her commenting on pop culture on KoPoint’s podcast AFK On Air, calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.

Ian Miller
1. millernumber1
I'm a bit confused - how does the reviewer know it's a faithful adaptation if they haven't read the book?

Also..."wringer" isn't "ringer."
Jack Flynn
3. JackofMidworld
The book version is on the ever-growing "Jack's list of stuff to read" but I watched the movie with a couple of friends who have read it and they loved it. That said, I liked it too, even tho I sorta felt like an outsider as I watched my buddies glancing, laughing, and slyly nodding to each other the whole time. The movie bumped the book a few notches up on the pile and, if there's a sequel, I'm in.
Jenny Thrash
4. Sihaya
#3: The book has a sequel called This Book is Full of Spiders. I've only gotten partway through it, but so far it looks promising. I think that, knowing that Bubba Ho Tep didn't get anywhere after alot of sequel talk, I just won't get too excited about Spiders until I hear that it's actually shooting.
Natalie Zutter
5. nataliezutter
@millernumber1 - I read the first chapter of John Dies at the End online, so that's what I was comparing to the beginning of the movie. And sure, I can't speak for the whole novel, but judging from the detailed Wikipedia entry I think I made a pretty good guess.

Also, "faithful" adaptation doesn't necessarily mean (in my mind, at least) that they followed the book word-for-word, more that they captured the spirit of the book. Good example: Fight Club. Bad example (made shot-for-shot): Watchmen.
Matthew Schmeer
6. mwschmeer
That red logo on the poster looks an awful lot like the Blue Blaze Irregulars logo turned on its side:
Ian Miller
7. millernumber1
Thanks for the response. Still not sure what the point of making faithfulness claims was in this review, when I think critiquing the film as a film would have presented fewer obstacles to the reader's credulity.
9. Keith Milstead
I have read the book, seen the movie and have a copy of the poster by aggreeing to place one in a place where it can be seen. Still I would love a copy for my library not from my library. The movie rocks...Oscar anyone? The book astounds me, Pulitzer anyone? and the posterm weii it is cool but I don't know of an award for one shots.
Steve Taylor
10. teapot7
Typo in 2nd paragraph - you want "wringer", not "ringer".

Glad to hear it's being made into a movie.

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