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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

SIFF 2012 Review: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End, the much-hyped film adaption of the book of the same title by David Wong (a pseudonym for Cracked editor Jason Pargin), isn’t a great film … but it is a fun film for what it is. I mean, look. I saw some of the reviews out of Sundance and SXSW, wherein folks were bitching about the low-budget SFX in this film, so I went into this expecting it to be really, really schlocky. And it’s not. Yes, it’s true that there are times when its obvious director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) is stretching the limits of a low budget to their max, and where you can see how much cooler the effects might have been given another million or ten here and there. So what?

Let’s appreciate what we have here: How ballsy was it for an independent director to take on shooting a project that many felt was completely unfilmable, on a low budget? It doesn’t hurt that Coscarelli has Paul Giammati anchoring the film as the skeptical reporter to whom Dave (newcomer Chase Williamson) tells a wild tale involving a street drug called “Soy Sauce” that shows the user a hidden world of monsters and doorways and the dead and time travel and invading aliens that incubate and hatch in a particularly gross (but cool) way. Also, there are naked people wearing disturbing, clownish masks, and if weird masks freak you out (hey, they do me) they might end up freaking you out in your dreams. Shudder.

John Dies is burdened by its spectacular, tight, clever opening sequence; the rest of it never quite lives up to the promise that opener offers. Because once we get past that bit and Coscarelli has our attention, just when we’re thinking, “hmm, okay, this could be interesting,” we get the rest of it, which is just – have you ever sat and listened to someone really stoned explaining a trippy or scary dream they had? It’s kind of like that, only it’s a really long dream and parts of it seem completely disconnected from the rest. But then there are quite a few times when, out of the blue, the script does something intelligent or witty or unexpected, and this happens with enough frequency that as the story unfolds we mostly stay with it, waiting for the moment when everything will become clear. It never quite does.

And it’s not always coherent, the second half is overly bloated by exposition, and it doesn’t always make sense – but even at its worst, I was still having fun watching it. Much like the acid trip the film evokes, you have to just kind of let go of any expectation that things have to be a particular way and allow the parts to flow together as they will. If you can let go your need for a plot to make logical sense, and the inherent belief that all SFX must look completely kick-ass like someone had $100 million to blow on blowing your mind, John Dies at the End is a clever, interesting, frequently funny film. And I completely respect Coscarelli, who seems to be a truly stand-up sort of guy, for having the audacity to tackle this material with a low-budget, and the tenacity to see it through and pull it off.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon