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.