In an age when identifying, tracking, and profiting from people’s tastes has never been easier, media products that seem a little too neatly tailored to a particular subculture arouse a certain apprehension. Call it the uncanny valley of identity: when you see something that gets a little too close to who you are, you get hostile. The feeling comes into play more and more as even the smallest cultural pleasures get appropriated with increasing speed. Seeing some seemingly obscure song a friend forwarded you achieving going “Gangham Style” viral, or showing up a few weeks later in an episode of Girls, is a reminder of how unremarkable what you like is.
Yet as Julia Turner rightly noted in last week’s Slate Culture Gabfest, “the prevailing American aesthetic for at least 10 years has been to strive not to look like everybody else, in a manner that just makes us look the same, because we’re all striving to unique. This is why people shop on Etsy.” This new hegemony is no better—and, importantly no worse—than that in any other era, except for its tendency to make people occasionally think themselves out of liking something they’d otherwise actually enjoy.
So on what side does John Dies at the End, the big-screen adaptation of the twisty, self-published novel by David Wong (nom de plume of Jason Pargin), fall: calculated pushing of buttons, or a sincere attempt at doing something different? It’s worth mentioning that Pargin was one of the writers who turned cracked.com from the Internet outpost of MAD magazine’s less funny knockoff to a hugely popular site that provides biting commentary that actual news or pundits don’t. He knows what people like, writes in a crass, clear, and engaging style, but doesn’t dumb anything down. In industry terms, he can hit the beats, and in this instance, these beats fall under “cult” tastes—which is almost certainly why Don Coscarelli, one of the founding fathers of the self-aware, auto-cult horror, took it on as a project.
Although the plot has been significantly simplified—specifically at the expense of all the female characters (one woman is completely excised, the other serves as pithy romantic interest)—the movie packs a lot of action into 99 minutes. The protagonist, also named David Wong, confesses to po-faced journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) that he and his deceased pal John saved the planet from a threat from an alternate universe with the assistance of Soy Sauce, a powerful drug that imbued them with clairvoyant and telekinetic powers, and a golden retriever named Charles Barkley. That’s the story we watch, in flashback, and from David’s rapid-fire, monotone narration, to the absurd first demon David and John encounter (manifest as reanimated cold cuts), to the baritone infomercial huckster who moonlights as a powerful sorcerer, the plays on Eighties horror movies, or just things nerds would seemingly enjoy, are multifarious. (There’s also one of those suckerfish things with big teeth.)
But tongues aren’t supposed to stay in cheeks for such a long time, especially when forced. Some of the intended humor falls flat, and there’s nothing close to an actual scare to balance out the humor—it’s bereft of even the ultra-cheap but effective Sudden Loud Noise. The saving grace of John Dies at the End is undoubtedly its manic storytelling: the energy and pacing of scenes give the movie the impression of being told on the spot (which is of course what the framing device intends).
Regardless of whether John Dies at the End provides belly laughs, rubs you the wrong way, or is just plain confusing, there’s much worse cliché and pandering bullshit being sold. Case in point: Warm Bodies. Don’t let the phonies win.