Short Ends and Leader

Drugs, Demons, and Parallel Dimensions: 'John Dies at the End'

(A) fright fan's fever dream laced with a healthy dose of '80s high concept camp creeps.


John Dies at the End

Director: Don Coscarelli
Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Daniel Roebuck
Rated: R
Studio: Magnet Releasing
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-04-02 (Limited VOD release)
Website
Trailer

You've got to hand it to Don Coscarelli. After three decades in service of his scary movie franchise, Phantasm, he started the new millennium with the hilarious horror mash-up Bubba Ho-Tep. That film, featuring Evil Dead icon Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis battling an ancient mummy became an instant cult classic. Now, nearly a decade later, he is back. No, not with the proposed sequel Bubba Nosferatu, but with a brazenly bizzaro world comedy called John Dies at the End. Based on a popular novel by Jason Pargin (under the pseudonym "David Wong") and dealing with drugs, demons, and parallel dimensions, it serves as a solid reminder of why Coscarelli is so well loved among horror geeks. It also illustrates why his vision won't be copping any mainstream acceptance anytime soon.

Our story starts with David (Chase Williamson) proposing a riddle that, when answered, will offer up the secrets of the universe. We then meet a reporter named Arnie (Paul Giamatti) whose been contacted about our lead's unusual story. Seems he and his friend John (Rob Mayes) got mixed up with a Jamaican pusher who deals in something called "Soy Sauce." One hit, and you see doorways of perception open up that heretofore unknown to humans. There are some unusual side effects (seeing into the future, mindreading) as well.

The stuff also taps in to an unseen force known as Korrock who plans on using the drug as a means of sending his minions over into our world. There's some portals, a ghost door, and a large, throbbing eye creature. As the police investigate the strange goings on around town, Dave is convinced he can control his reactions. With the help of his friend, who may or may not be dead, the dog of an amputee named Amy (Fabianne Therese), and a famous infomercial psychic (Clancy Brown), he hopes to stop Korrock once and for all.

Or something like that...

If this all sounds like a surreal amalgamation of David Cronenberg and Albert Band, well, you'd be partially right. John Dies at the End (which may or may not be the truth, by the way) is like a fright fan's fever dream laced with a healthy dose of '80s high concept camp creeps. The movie is a reminder of the days when terror was tempered by wit, when practical effects dominated the genre, and ideas and the reimagining of same trumped attempts at regurgitating the same old movie macabre. Like the zombie cop romp Dead Heat (featuring Treat Williams and...wait for it...Joe Piscopo) or other films trying to find a new way to tell a familiar tale, John Dies at the End uses its 'drug as a doorway' designs to fill the screen with all manner of madness.

Indeed, this is one of the weirdest movies to come out in the last decade or so. It's beyond the meta-mania of something like The Cabin in the Woods. Instead, Coscarelli relies on our familiarity with the genre to fill in the blanks the plotline often misses or avoids. We constantly jump back and forth in time, forget important information that is necessary for later denouements, and wonder just who in the Hell dreamt up this psycho scenario. As our hero narrates his adventures, or better yet, tries to explain them (unsuccessfully, one might add), Coscarelli uses a bevy of bravura moves to turn the tired into something slick and savvy. This is hipster horror at its most accessible. It may be smug and smarmy, but it's also smart.

What it's not, is scary. John Dies at the End seems to fall into the inevitable trap that faces most laugh-filled dread - to wit, the humor is on the mark, the fear is not. Sure, there are a couple of jump scares, and we do get a lot of nasty gore, but for the most part, they are in service of the satire, not the other way around. At least Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard remembered that the main reason behind their film was to give people the heebie jeebies. With John Dies at the End, all we get are a few solid set pieces, some nifty animation (both computer and traditional) and a lot of indie irony served up without a desire to include the clueless. This movie is like an exclusive club. If you aren't a paying member of the post post-modern movie set, you just won't "get" it.

Still, in his defense, Coscarelli knows how to entertain, even if he doesn't quite understand how to shiver us to the bone. The various elements used in John Dies at the End are compelling, as is the whole "Soy Sauce"/living entity angle of the narrative. There should be more of that. Also, the acting parallels the personal storylines onscreen. As the title personality, Mr. Mayes strikes the right balance between bravery and buffoon. We are never quite sure if he will rise to the occasion, or slump over in a chair. Amy, on the other hand, is around for the intro and the ending, which means Ms. Therese has nothing to work with. Clancy Brown's extended cameo shows what a fine character actor he really is, while Paul Giamatti has the look of exasperation down to a science.

That just leaves Mr. Williamson, and as a lead, he's likeable if not quite compelling. He's too snarky, too insular in what is going on to connect. He reacts like someone of his particular personal bent would - angst-ridden on the inside, ambiguous on the outside. In fact, he's a lot like the movie he's in charge of. With something like Bubba Ho-Tep, we fell in love with the characters first while enjoying their adventures secondarily. Here, it's all about the plots many amusing (and often confusing) twists and turns. While there is still hope that Coscarelli can raise his aging King of Rock and Roll from the dead for one more vampire-inspired adventure, fans will have to settle for John Dies at the End for now. While not as fulfilling as the Phantasm franchise, it's one of the better oddball fright flicks in a long time

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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