Saturday, October 15, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 10: John Dies At The End (2012)

Adapting a book into a movie is always a challenge. For starters, the two mediums have utterly different expectations. After all, a book can be close to a thousand pages in length and you won't hear many complaints, but a movie over two hours had better damn well earn its running time.

The other trick, of course, is that an author doesn't need a hundred million dollars to deliver giant spider elevators, intelligent floating jellyfish, and turkey Voltrons--but unless you're pulling down Marvel budgets, you better give up those dreams.

Of course, when the book you're adapting goes off on multiple tangents because it was originally released chapter by chapter and it deals heavily with questions of what is and isn't real, well, sometimes you find yourself forced to scrap almost the whole thing and make something vaguely similar out of the pieces.

I'm getting ahead of myself, of course, but that seems pretty apropos for this film.

It should be pretty clear that I loved the book this is based on, as well as its sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It. And when I heard Don Coscarelli was directing the film version, I was definitely excited--even as I knew that it couldn't live up to the book's expectations because of a modest budget and a very reasonable running time. Even so, it took two viewings for me to truly watch the film based on its own merits, rather than how it stacked up to the book.

However, there is obviously a 50/50 chance that you, dear reader, have not read the book and want to know if you'll enjoy the movie without hearing about how that wasn't the dog's name in the book. I am, therefore, going to attempt to talk about the movie on its own terms and then we can circle back to it as an adaptation.

The film opens with our narrator, David Wong (Chase Williamson), asking us a riddle that could make or break our understanding of the universe. As an aside, you will notice that David is not Chinese, but we'll come to why that is later. At any rate, David's riddle is a delight so I won't spoil it here but it involves a decapitated zombie, an alien slug, and the true identity of an axe.

We rejoin David as he sits at a booth in a Chinese restaurant. He mentions having dosed on "the sauce" a little while earlier, which allows him to know things about the world around him--like how many grains of rice are on a plate and where the rice came from. David is waiting for someone, however, and is suddenly startled out of his reverie when Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti!) appears across from him. Arnie is there because David has decided to tell him the whole story.

Arnie first observes that David isn't Asian, which David explains is because he changed his surname when he came of age, settling on Wong because it's the most popular name on the planet. david makes up a fascinating story about his real parentage, but then admits he was lying because he's nervous. Arnie is frustrated, but then David focuses on the real reason they're sitting and talking. David surprises Artie by guessing the exact coins he had in his pocket and then the weirdly specific dream he'd had earlier.

However, thinking to himself, David considers whether Arnie would ever be able to relate to another human being ever again if he revealed to him the contents of the small container on the table next to his plate. Or, if he had witnessed the events of a recent night where David was summoned by his friend, John Cheese (Rob Mayes) to help a girl with the abusive ghost of an ex-boyfriend, only for the girl to reveal herself to not be human at all once she lured them to her basement, whereupon she burst into a swarm of snakes, turned the door handle into a penis, and then possessed an entire freezer full of meat to attack them.

Wow. Meat is murder!
Oddly, however, the meat golem seems to think they're someone named Marconi. The lads assure the beast they can get it in touch with the real Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown!) and use their phone to call him. However, Marconi has been in the business of battling supernatural evil far longer than they have and he instantly vanquishes the creature over the phone.

Well, David may not be telling Arnie that story now, but that's partially because the story he's about to tell him is far stranger. At a party where John's band was performing, David was hanging around with Fred Chu (Jimmy Wong), when a prosthetic hand landed on the drink table beside them. The hand had been tossed there by some jerks led by Justin White (Johnny Weston), who were harassing Amy Sullivan (Fabienne Therese) by playing keep-away with the limb. John gives her the hand back and she places it back on the stump of her left arm before departing because she has to find her dog. Apparently he bit some Jamaican guy before running off.

Well, John meets said "Jamaican" shortly after. Given that the guy calls himself Robert Marley (Tai Bennett), it's a good bet his accent is just as phony. However, when John expresses skepticism at Marley's claims that he can read minds and see the future, Marley somehow correctly guesses the dream John had that morning--right down to how he woke up. Suitably freaked, David decides to go home, but on the way he finds Amy's dog, Bark Lee, by his car. After being sick by his car--which disconcertingly involves seeing the same cockroach that Marley had earlier produced using the "behind your ear" trick crawling out of the vomit--David somehow makes it home with Bark Lee in tow.

However, he then gets a distressed call from John. Not only does John act like he's called David multiple times when he hasn't, but he demands David come get him because there's something in his apartment. David arrives at John's apartment, but plainly does not see the creature that John is terrified of. However, after John desperately runs out the door, David notices a syringe full of a strange black liquid that he pockets and we see that there is indeed something unpleasant hanging out on the ceiling.

"Excuse me have you seen Kurt Russell anywhere?"
John tries to get out of John what the drug he took was, but John refuses to go to a hospital so they end up at all-night diner. John explains that after the party ended he found himself somewhere with a group, and Marley joined them. The syringe came from Marley, who called the stuff "Soy Sauce" and talked about how it opens up doors to other worlds and realities. John thinks all the calls he claims he made to David will reach him for years to come--and he's proved right when David gets a call from John, which was clearly made hours earlier.

In the car, John passes out and David stops the car to call a number on the back of religious pendant he has, apparently absent any better ideas. The priest (Angus Scrimm!) who answers tries to give David some pretty reasonable advice about insanity and drug problems. Except, then David gets stabbed by the syringe--and when he pulls it from his pocket he notices that the black ichor flowing from the needle of the syringe is growing spikes. He throws it out the window, but as he's in the grip of his freak-out he hears the priest on the other end of the line turn nasty and warn him of horrific, impending doom.

Driving away, David is suddenly grabbed from the backseat by a strange man who introduces himself as Roger North (Doug Jones!), after placing an alien slug in David's shirt that bites David any time he makes a sudden move. North babbles at David, a string of thoughts that seem to have a message in them yet also seem to mean absolutely nothing. North wants David and John for some purpose, but David understandably wants nothing to do with someone who puts an alien parasite on him. After successfully burning the slug with his car's cigarette lighter and then squashing it after he tosses it out of the car, David discovers North has vanished.

People buy them when they're little and think they're so cute...
David has just gotten back in the damn car when Detective Appleton (Glynn Turman) appears and tells him that he and John will be coming to the police station. In the interrogation room, Appleton reveals Marley's real name and then shows David a crime scene photo of a human corpse that appears to have exploded. "Before and after," Appleton explains. Not only did Marley mysteriously explode, but of a group that went back to Marley's trailer only John and Justin White are still alive. Appleton is determined to find out what David knows, except he hits a small snag when an officer enters the room to advise that John has just died.

Appleton leaves David alone in the interrogation room with another detective, who doesn't speak. David gets a phone call then--from John. It seems that rumors of John's death are not exactly exaggerated, but the sauce still in David's system allows him to communicate with John even so. Now is the time to escape, John advises, because there's something David needs to do right away. Oh, and that cop in the room with him? He's not actually human and he's definitely not friendly...

"That squirrel is going to regret teasing me!"
I'll leave it here for now because I don't want to spoil too much as I think this movie is far more enjoyable if you don't know everything going in, even if you've read the book.

Horror comedies are a tricky balance because of having to make sure the two elements properly balance. Don Coscarelli, however, is one of the masters of maintaining that balance, even in some of his lesser work. So John Dies At The End is a film that manages to be hilarious and disturbing, often in the same scene. Coscarelli also does a great job with keeping our bizarre protagonists sympathetic when they could easily be just a couple of douches.

After all, as with the book, this film has an undeniable streak of frat boy humor to it that verges on unpleasant at times but just manages not to tip over.

Obviously, Coscarelli has some help from his cast. Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, and Doug Jones are great, obviously, but Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes do a great job as David and John. I do have to say that Williamson does, at times, strike some false notes with the delivery choices he makes by going too broad, but Mayes has a blast as John. I can't say a lot about Fabienne Therese, unfortunately, because even though Amy is brought into the story a lot earlier than in the book, she still barely gets anything to do. However, I can safely say that everyone in the film does a great job in their roles.

Really, the film's biggest fault is that its ambition far outstrips its ability--by which I mean its budget. On the plus side, there are some great practical effects on display in this film and some amusing shortcuts, like the truly delightful way a scene calling for a car to crash through a wall is staged and how footage of an inicident of genocide by giant spider is shown to the heroes via a cartoon. However, there is also some epically shitty CGI and greenscreen on display. It makes the film look cheaper than any of the shots on limited sets.

Even so, you have to give them credit for what they tried to deliver. Exploding heads, alternate dimensions, dogs driving cars, genocide by giant spiders, giant computer monsters--one could say this movie has it all, even though it has less than half of what the book had. However, in some ways that's actually a positive for the movie. Much as I loved the book, its plot has way too many episodes, extraneous characters, and plot twists to function well as a movie. The film wisely combines some characters, removes a majority of the subplots, and elevates Korrok the living computer into the film's central villain instead of a portion of a larger conspiracy--even if still don't meet Korrok near the film's end.

Unfortunately, there are some down notes in the film that come from an odd mixture of being not faithful enough and too faithful, in a sense. First, the film ends with the same epilogue as the book had, playing under the end credits--however they cut the punchline! It's a truly bizarre choice to leave the set-up, but not the pay-off. Second, well...this film is kind of a bit racist.

I don't mean in a deliberate and conscious way, mind you, but some of the issues I had reading the original novel come through even worse in the movie. For starters, the Chinese restaurant in the movie is called "They China Food," as in the book, but the book explained that the restaurant was owned by a European family who thought the racist name made them sound more authentic. Here it's just a racist sight gag. And then there's the disturbing problem of the fact that the movie takes David's two love interests, of sorts, from the book--Jennifer Lopez (yes, her name is sort of a joke) and Amy Sullivan--and combines them into just Amy.

It's disturbing because, while Jennifer practically gets replaced by Amy midway through the novel, she does at least survive the book. Which makes her the only non-white character to do so in the novel. So, with Jennifer removed from the movie, that means there is not a single character of color in the film who doesn't end up dead. I'm not saying that making David Wong actually Chinese or having Amy be Latina would necessarily have improved the film, but it would have made it feel a lot less uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable in a bad way, I mean.

Still, you shouldn't take this as me condemning the movie as a whole because it's as casually racist as most of Hollywood's output. While the film's racial politics are a bit alarming, there are many movies I can (and will) make the same criticism of while still enjoying them. It's a glaring flaw, but even a great film has flaws.

In the end, I do have to say I recommend this film. It's a fun horror comedy that delivers on the horror, laughs, and bloodletting while it also knows how to keep from overstaying its welcome.

And no, I'm not going to tell you if the title is actually a spoiler.

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