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john diesRob Mayes in a scene from “John Dies at the End.” Photo • Magnet Releasing
“John Dies at the End” is an incoherent film of ideas that chooses to focus on strangeness and detached reaction shots rather than narrative structure. It is, in essence, a very well-made student film, competently filmed but lacking any substance. Films like these are meant to find audiences on the fringe—hence the showcase by quirky film club Mise En Scenesters at the Barking Legs Theater set for this Saturday.
The filmmakers were likely looking to make a cult classic—a film that does poorly at the box office, but maintains a steady underground fan base over the years. Think “Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” The problem is that cult films happen organically and can’t be forced. “John Dies at the End” is simply trying too hard. There are moments of slight amusement, but as the film draws to a close, audiences are likely to be left wondering why they bothered watching in the first place.
The film is based on the novel of the same name, published online by cracked.com editor David Wong (the pen name of Jason Pargin). The story in both the novel and the film are best described as fantasy horror, a mish-mash of vulgar humor with science fiction overtones of alternate dimensions and time travel. The finished product is very clearly the culmination several years of self-indulgent amusement, encouraged by throngs of stoned Internet trolls looking for cheap laughs and gore. One of the successes of the film is its strict adherence to the sensibilities and interests of this narrow audience. But the humor is only effective in small doses and by the end of the film it becomes tiresome.
It isn’t easy to describe the plot, as it doesn’t follow any logical pattern. Our hero, David Wong (not to be confused with the author), begins by telling a reporter of his supernatural encounters over the past year. It starts with a drug called soy sauce and a Jamaican named Robert Marley and ends with a dog named Bark Lee and showdown in another dimension. The story leaps back and forth in the narrative, with sight gags and voice over, forcing the audience to pay close attention if they hope to make any sense out of what happens. It’s rare for a film to require so much of the audience while turning door knobs into dicks.
These types of absurdities are normal in the film, and if it had done a better job with characterization they might have even been forgivable. Unfortunately, there is no reason to care about what happens to anyone. There are no characters in “John Dies at the End,” only actors with characteristics. Wong has an amputee girlfriend in the film, but he doesn’t seem to have any affection for her. She’s just the film’s McGuffin.
Good horror films are driven by tension. The audience has to be afraid that something bad is going to happen to one of the characters. Over the course of this film, we aren’t introduced to anyone worth our concern. There is no reason to care about David or his friend John, and the result is free of consequence. Despite a rapid pace, the lack of real people with real motivations makes the film seem much longer than it is. It’s the film equivalent of a NASCAR race—fast moving, but terribly dull.
The audience for this type of entertainment can be found lurking in dark rooms, posting on 4chan message boards and browsing Reddit late at night. These are the people that give us internet memes and Anonymous. “John Dies at the End” is certainly ambitious, but it’s far too incoherent, far too long, and far too detached to be effective.
“John Dies at the End”
8:30 p.m. • Saturday, March 23 • Barking Legs Theater • 1307 Dodds Ave. • (423) 624-5347 • barkinglegs.org