John Dies at the End – a catch-up with a cult classic

So you might have heard by now, but some very important statues were given out this past weekend – ones that readers of this site will have followed, discussed and argued over from announcement to prize-giving.

I’m talking, of course, about the 4th Annual Golden Geek Awards.


A ceremony in celebration of the very best nerd cinema has thrown our way over the last year and hosted by, it’s a great chance to reflect on some of the biggest hitters in recent memory… as well as an underdog or two. So while Spike Jonze’s Her and Guillermo del Toro walked away with the Best Picture and Best Director gongs respectively, it was great to see John Dies at the End – one of the most ambitious and criminally underseen films of last year – collect both Best Actor for Chase Williamson (in his debut feature role) and Best Screenplay for writer/director Don Coscarelli. I’m a huge fan of the novel on which it’s based, written by Editor David Wong (AKA Jason Pargin), so the timing of these awards seemed like a perfect opportunity to revisit the movie and explain why it’s definitely worth checking out.


Ghostbusters. Clerks. Bill & Ted. HP Lovecraft. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.

 John Dies at the End has been variously described as combinations of the above titles by writers scrambling to find something, anything it is comparable to. While at times they are all fitting maybe in terms of traits, genre trappings or two-man team-ups, the simple fact is this: there’s nothing out there quite like it.

Beginning life as an episodic serial published online by Wong, the story takes a pair of losers – with Wong himself as its weary centre, accompanied by charismatic idiot, struggling musician, borderline alcoholic and best friend John Cheese – and throws them into a nightmare of inter-dimensional horror, drug trips across time and space, science-fiction philosophy, reanimated corpses, telepathic dogs, an invasion of Earth, obsessed detectives, possessed thug teens, existentialism, meat monsters, and finding love with one-handed ladies. It’s a sprawling, druggy, road-trip of a book; sometimes disjointed (owing to the nature of its creation), sometimes gory, disgusting or genuinely frightening, but always very very funny. I adored it on first read, and more so on subsequent ones, but considered the book to be radically unfilmable. And so it was, until Don Coscarelli got his hands on it.

Meat your doom

Meat your doom

No stranger to the strange himself – this is, after all, the creator of the Phantasm franchise and the man who squared off an elderly Elvis against a mummy in Bubba Ho-Tep – Coscarelli was immediately taken with the material, set to work on a screenplay and went about acquiring financing to develop the project. However it was his relationship with actor Paul Giamatti, whom he had become friendly with since learning of his love of Ho-Tep, that really gave the project the clout it needed to move forward, and knowing full well from the beginning that the weird and graphic nature of JDatE would mean a relatively low budget, Coscarelli managed to craft an adaptation that retains the core elements of the book while scaling it back to an achievable production level. While occasionally the film does suffer from the seams showing – a slightly stilted puppetry effect here, cheap-looking CGI there – it’s the sense of scale that matters, and the gutso with which everyone involved commits to is deeply admirable.

dave and john

Dave & John – perfectly summarised

Casting a pair of unknowns in the leads was perhaps inevitable due to the budgetary constraints, but works in the film’s favour, as Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes effortlessly disappear into the roles of David and John. Williamson carries the bulk of the film, and for a debut performance he plays it very well; alternating between deadpan bewilderment, confusion and terror in flashbacks, and the weary, wry grin of a man who knows far too much in the present, he’s a charming and likeable lead. Although granted far less screen time as the titular John, Mayes also makes a strong and lasting impression, bringing a manic energy and distinct physicality to the loveable rogue, and the great chemistry and easy humour between the two really helps sell them as lifelong friends. The duo are surrounded by a strong quartet of genre favourites – Clancy Brown, Doug Jones, Glynn Turman, and of course Giamatti himself as reporter Arnie Blondstone – making for an altogether high-calibre cast, with interesting and distinctive performances all round.

mind blown

Just had mind = blown

Like the book itself, it’s destined for the Cult Hall of Fame. Too gross for some, too non-linear and oddball for others, it’s nonetheless an endlessly inventive, over-the-top, and very funny film. If you always wanted to see a moustache peel itself off a man’s face and attack another, or communication with the dead via a bratwurst, or a door handle turn into an actual flaccid penis, then John Dies at the End is the movie for you. It’s visually very fast and fun (a brief animated sequence is hilariously horrific), the soundtrack has an awesome wild west groove to it and by the end credits – which slip seamlessly in among the sequel-baiting final scenes – you’ll be hoping for more mind-bending and genre-defying adventures with Dave and John.




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