Sunday, July 21, 2013

John Dies At The End: A Review

You know, I wanted to like this horror comedy movie. I really did. But this may be one time when popular taste is looking like the wisdom of crowds. The movie based upon a horror parody book by Jason Pargin (senior editor at, written under the pseudonym David Wong. It's basically applying a mashup of the slacker trope with H.P. Lovecraftian unspeakable eldritch horrors beyond your ken from other dimensions that might be mistaken for demons trope.

I'll just say right off that I found the movie too clever by half, with far too may self-conscious winks and nods, more cutesy than brilliant, probably not scary enough, but maybe too grisly for the squeamish (although given my current experiences involving bodily functions and various exudations and indignities, my grisly and gruesome pole-vault bar is set rather high, and so the last thing you could call me at the moment is squeamish), and therefore not really sure what its audience is beyond comic book crowd, and the sardonic smirking hipster doofus types (which of course means it fails to engage me, though I wanted it to).

I think Mundanes, which is to say those not particularly engaged in speculative thinking, will find it possibly mind blowing, worth maybe a "Whoa!", but reading a blurb on the DVD back that calls it a "punk rock Ghostbusters" should clue most people in. Then there's the jacket blurb for the book, which suggests it is "a cross between Douglas Adams and Stephen King", and that stops me right there.

Yes, I know that there are people out there that are big, big fans of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and various King novels. I am not one of them. Adams I found ordinary and unfunny - seriously unfunny. It's not a cultural Atlantic divide thing. It's not a "you just don't get him because he's so brilliantly English" thing. He's just not funny. He's bland, OK? Nothing original, no new tropes, and nothing to add to existing tropes and ideas. If you are developmentally arrested at the age of twelve, you'll find Douglas Adams brilliant. Sorry if that offends you, but it needs to be said. The future history of the human race may depend upon it. (And yes, I have said before I'm 56 going on 12, but not that 12).

And Stephen King? I've never made it past a paragraph of any of his works. He's a HACK, ok? Deal with it. You want scary, grotesque and macabre? Read Robert Bloch. Read Naked Lunch. Read Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions. Read, really, any true life horror story, especially the real American ones, whose national character is fundamentally (because, you know, Freedumb) deeply and permanently antisocial and psychotic.

No, really, you want a real life horror story? Watch Pat Buchanan. Any doubts that that fecal grease-ball is not some eldritch horror in barely human form, escaped from some deeply twisted dark contorted purple dimension, ready to burst out from its cage of skin in an explosion of toxic blood and rancid semen, wet shiny gristle and serrated bone, crimson ooze, acid bile, and dried-up hard little shrapnel projectiles of invertebrate shit, should be laid to rest just by experiencing him for more than a minute. Seriously.

Here's my deal. Horror stories have always worked better in print or on the radio, where the imagined horrors that spring from the Theater of the Mind work far better than any visual presentation. So horror movies already have one strike against them.

This movie is about aliens that might be demons that might be alternate reality creatures from parallel dimensions, and the protagonists (who can experience this through some parachronic urberdimensional ichor of a drug nicknamed Soy Sauce) that go up against them.

I'm not sure when the whole parallel dimensions trope got started. Of course, you've got the fantasy and fairy tales, that speak of the other world, the half-world, the world of Faerie, the hells and heavens and realms of supernatural beings. And it gets put on a solid scientific footing by H.G. Wells. But most of us get our first taste through the Outer Limits or the Twilight Zone. And, of course, that puts the whole supernatural angels and demons on a rational footing, and makes it palatable to us modern Enlightenment  types (you know, the ones have committed mass murder on an unprecedented scale these past five hundred years). What was I saying?

Okay, so the director is Don Coscarelli, who did Phantasm and Bubba Ho Tep, both mildly amusing and watchable movies. I suspect the same person who did the cute creature effects in Phantasm also was recruited for this movie. Meaning, you can't be too scared by the critters, or at least I wasn't. (And, of course there's the obligatory head-explodes-from-shotgun-blast  scene which I think most people are immune to by now). Speaking of Phantasm, the scariest part of that movie was the Tall Man, played by Angus Scrimm, who appears in JDATE as Father Shellnut.

Here's my problem. There are too many throw away bits in the movie. There's clever stuff, no question, but it doesn't move the plot forward, or enhance our appreciation of the characters, or explore an idea to the point of circus geek clarity. It wants to be geek movie. All the noises and tags and labels are there, but when you expect some nice little monologue or tidbit, you get smarmy and sardonically hip contemporary references, and throw away lines that will be dated and unknown in, wow, maybe just a few months. And some of the lines are straight from the book because sounding them (and credit the actors for trying, A for effort) through the mouthparts makes them sound stilted and contrived.

It's not that I didn't enjoy the movie. It's not that I didn't laugh out loud at some of the bits. But it could have been a great movie, and that's perhaps my problem and not yours. This happens a lot to me. I'll point out how I would have improved the movie, and I suppose that leaves me open to the criticism of, well, then make a better movie. To which I reply, childishly, well maybe I will! So there!

So, my version of the movie would be that TV is actually the most evil creation ever conceived in the existence of the multiverse. Some creature from before the beginning of time (trapped in some ironic and visionary Philip K Dickian prison pocket universe) wants to run the whole ball of wax, all of creation, all versions of it, even the shitty ones, and (somehow) sends out evil emanations to various sapient creatures to create TV. Philo T. Farnsworth could be the hero who discovers too late his awful mistake in creating electronic television. He is a mentor from beyond the grave (maybe?) to (natch) the two hipster doofus heroes who must save humanity. Meanwhile, David Sarnoff has been possessed by the ancient evil ones, and that pretty much explains David Sarnoff and RCA for real in real life. And also explains, basically, the whole unholy alliance that is the American corporate culture.  GE is just the absorbed vehicle of unspeakable evil, and the whole point of jumbotrons is to create dimensional portals big enough to let the titanic evil force through into our world.  See, me, I like villains seemingly unstoppable and invincible, because it allows them to have a playful and generous sense of humor, like, you know, a cute little murderous fucking kitty cat playing with a mouse. It's so cute and adorable. But I'd avoid the whole save-the-world trope. A lot of people got to die, with only a fortunate lucky few making it to the other side, a little the worse for wear. And, of course, one undeserving survivor who gets it right before the end credits. Because the main lesson of horror movies is you can't avoid the end. You can only postpone it.

Cut to utter darkness. Cue evil laughter.

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