In so very many ways, cult director Don Coscarelli was the perfect person to adapt David Wong’s cult internet novel into a cult film. Wong (aka Jason Pargin), erstwhile webmaster of pointlesswasteoftime.com and current editor at Cracked, published his delightfully referential though still unassailably original dorkfest of a book serially on his website a few years ago, imbuing the work with side-splitting, irreverent humor he’d been amassing for decades while working a soul-crushingly monotonous office job in the Midwest. John Dies at the End, as a novel, wasn’t nearly as concerned with plot as it was with character, surprisingly terrifying humor, and well constructed, vaguely philosophical motifs and set pieces. Much to the chagrin of people whose sole benchmark by which to judge fiction happens to be narrative structure, the book eschewed said structure (and cohesion) by design, which left many of its ardent fans wondering how in the hell someone could turn it into a movie. Or at least wondering if someone could do so without completely mangling everything that was good about it in the first place. So, again, Coscarelli was as close to an ideal choice as possible.
The story at the heart of John Dies at the End involves a protagonist (conveniently enough named David Wong) who makes up half a slacker paranormal detective duo with his best friend, John Cheese (who was modeled after Wong/Pargin’s writing partner of the same name). John, who spends most of the novel and film as a tragically deceased frontman of a not-really-awesome band, serves as a spirit guide to David on his journey of discovery into the world of the weird and a mysterious drug referred to only as “soy sauce.” The tacky, dark brown substance allows its user to see beyond the appearances of things into a hidden dimension loosely influenced by the works of John C. Lilly, Terence McKenna, and H.P. Lovecraft. David slowly realizes the ancient, inter-dimensional foe he’s dealing with, while still finding time to serve as a vehicle for body humor and oddly wry observations about the nature of identity and concrete reality in an age of digital facsimiles. Dave and John’s friendship is the frame upon which most of the meaningful exchanges in the novel are built, and this dynamic between the two fairly lazy men serves as a wellspring for the majority of humor in the film, as well.
The humor in Wong’s novel was intriguing in that it didn’t detract from the genuine horror of its story in the slightest. On the contrary, the way in which the author structured his story around humor accomplished an almost imperceptible drawing-in of his audience, rendering the terror at the heart of his ideas all the more jarring. It was a neat trick, to be sure, and one that sadly isn’t repeated in Coscarelli’s film. There’s an argument somewhere in here to be made that film by its very nature as a visual medium can’t achieve that same exact mix of comedy and terror as can the written word, but I’m not going to get into it. JDATE stands on its own as an uncannily enjoyable and joyous film, unabashedly comfortable with reveling in the absurdity of its characters and the jumbled, hot mess of a story it has to tell.
For the film version of John Dies At The End, it is evident that the main concern on the part of its makers was maintaining the unusual and refreshing tone of Wong’s book. Coscarelli et al. understood from the beginning that fitting all of the intricate and consummately well-written jokes that pepper the novel into a feature-length film was an impossibility, and so they didn’t even try. It’s a well-made film, a film that in all likelihood was only possible under the watchful eye of Coscarelli. It’s difficult to overstate how difficult a task adapting this literary experiment must have been, and for that fact alone the director deserves our respect and appreciation. It helps that the movie is gut-bustingly funny in its own right, as well.