JOHN DIES AT THE END

When John and Dave hit the sauce, interdimensional chaos ensues. An Interview with director Don Coscarelli and author David Wong of JOHN DIES AT THE END.

By Kier-La Janisse

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It began in 2001 as a blog with six readers. By 2005 it was an internet sensation and sold 5000 copies in its first paperback form courtesy of Permuted Press, attracting the attention of heavy-hitting genre maverick Don Coscarelli. To author David Wong – the pseudonym of comedy writer Jason Pargin – the commercial trajectory of John Dies at the End probably seemed as unlikely as anything he penned in the genre-bending story.

“I spent almost a decade working two day jobs and doing all of my writing on the internet, completely unpaid and with no hope of ever turning it into a career,” Pargin recollects. “I had a comedy website (in the days before “blog” was a word) and it was on that site where I first posted John Dies at the End as a serial over the course of about five years. So it was while I was still working at my office jobs that I first got the offer to sell Jdate as a paperback via an indie horror publisher. Soon after, I sold the film rights to Don Coscarelli, who somehow obtained one of only a few thousand copies of the book that existed in the world at the time.”

“It was the first project brought to me by a robot,” Coscarelli says of the film’s genesis. “I had been reading some interesting books published by Permuted Press and one day found an email in my inbox from amazon.com, which said that if I liked the last Permuted book I had read, I would love John Dies at the End. I read the log line and ordered it immediately.”

John Dies at the End is a tale of two unlikely and unstoppable friends thrown into a rather unpredictable adventure. David Wong and John Cheese are college dropouts who work at a video store. The dynamic of their longtime friendship is set up immediately: John is the obnoxious friend who drags his more unassuming counterpart around through various misadventures, more often than not landing them in some kind of trouble. At a field party one night, they stumble upon both a weird Jamaican dealer peddling a new drug called ‘soy sauce’ and a red-haired dog who insists on shadowing Dave, much to his annoyance. (Like John, the dog, Molly, will prove an indispensable partner in the adventures to come despite initial appearances.) The soy sauce obliterates most humans who ingest it – turning them into human portals for shadowy men from another dimension. But for John and Dave, the sauce allows them to see a plane of existence parallel to our own (a Lovecraftian twist that recalls the pineal perils of From Beyond) and to cross over into other worlds, where the shadow men – in the service of the godlike entity Korrok – are planning the Big Takeover, with the soy sauce as their means of infiltration. But as a result of surviving the sauce, John and Dave become impromptu ghostbusters, gaining a modicum of questionable fame in the town of Undisclosed and beyond. When the story begins, Dave is recounting his tale to skeptical tabloid reporter Arnie Blondestone.

Helping along the tale’s traversal from page to screen was exec producer Paul Giamatti, who also plays Arnie in the film.  “I found out that Paul was a fan of Bubba Ho-tep,” explains Coscarelli. “Several years ago we met and started looking for something to work on. I cannot say enough about him. Paul is a decent and humble man, not like a lot of stars you meet. In addition to being the greatest actor on the planet he also has this wicked, subversive sense of humor. Paul and his partner Dan Carey have a production company and they have been making some great independent films, including their new one, Lucky Dog with Paul Rudd. Paul and Dan partnered up with me on the sequel to Bubba Ho-tep. We spent several years working on it but it blew up for reasons which had nothing to do with us. After that I gave him the script for John Dies at the End and he was extremely enthusiastic and he and Dan came onboard.”

That the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-tep optioned the rights makes solid sense considering many elements come straight out of Coscarelli’s universe. Portals to other dimensions, body-swapping, a conspiracy to enslave mankind – the story seems built for Coscarelli.  “I knew it was certainly in my world.” He says. “However it was author David Wong (Jason Pargin) who pointed out the distinct similarities with Bubba Ho-tep.” The links between the triumvirate of films are undeniable, even though similarities with Bubba Ho-tep may be less obvious. “There are themes that clearly appeal to both of us,” offers Wong. “Both films deal with unusual or mismatched friends, pairs of misunderstood people who are at kind of a low point of their lives. They have to rise to the occasion of fighting something supernatural, and their circumstances put them in a position where they really can’t ask for help. Neither of us invented that setup, but I think we’re both drawn crazy stories that still star real, sympathetic people instead of archetypes. In John Dies at the End, Dave is just as taken aback by how insane the Jdate universe is as the viewer. Beneath all of the insanity and meat monsters, you have his angst, and loneliness and general dissatisfaction with the world. It’s hard not to identify with him at least a little bit.”

Dave’s overwhelmed straight–man provides a perfect reflective surface for John’s crass humor to bounce off of.  It would be very easy for the film, and the book it came from, to go off-the-rails stupid and lose the audience with the rampant penis and feces jokes, not to mention the bizarre supernatural creatures (wig monster, anyone?). But both writer and filmmaker set up tonal boundaries to keep the horror versus comedy balance in check. “It’s harder than it looks,” Pargin admits, “and it’s the most painstaking part of writing these stories: trying to judge exactly at what pace you can ease the audience into the craziness of the world. You don’t want to alienate people right away, but you can’t do it too slowly, either – if the story appears to be a straight horror adventure for the first 30 minutes and then suddenly takes a hard turn for the absurd, the audience will get annoyed, feeling like we’ve pulled a bait-and-switch. This is why both the movie and the book kick off with the ridiculous encounter with the meat monster. What occurs there is very silly, but it’s also very straightforward and clear what’s going on: ‘This is the universe this story takes place in, we’re telling you now so you can’t get mad regardless of how stupid it gets later.’ I don’t want to make myself sound like an expert, it’s just that I feel like a lot of movies and TV shows and novels get it wrong. This is what I think frustrated a lot of people about the TV series Lost, they felt like the show never established early on what was and was not possible on the island.”

Fan rendering of a wig monster

The book’s countless gag-heavy scenarios (gags meaning stunts and FX, not just the scatological humour) would surely provide a challenge for an indie director like Coscarelli, who has always exercised his vision outside of the Hollywood machine (can you imagine a studio meeting where the pitch “Elvis and black JFK in a nursing home fight an Egyptian mummy in a cowboy hat” would have resulted in handshakes and a blank cheque? Well, maybe in the current landscape of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and a revisionist Baker Street sleuth…) “It’s an extremely ambitious script for a modest budget, no question,” Coscarelli admits. “There were a lot of concerns, monsters made of meat, a talking dog, a brain creature, a drug that selects its victims. All of them were challenges and I am extremely proud of how well they play.” Pargin couldn’t agree more. “Don’s attitude from the beginning was that if they couldn’t make it look great, it wouldn’t be in the film at all,” he asserts. “He had very specific ideas of what could be accomplished with makeup versus a suit versus CGI, and what couldn’t be done on budget without looking cheap or cheesy. Having seen the film, there was no compromise there as far as I could see.”

The first otherworldy creature to appear in the book is a man assembled from an eclectic array of meat packets, who proves not only to be kind of gullible but also an irresistible treat to the roving psychic canine, Molly, easily my favourite character and the victim of a very unfortunate John Linley Frazier haircut partway through the book. The haircut is only one of several affronts levelled at this poor ginger mutt, who is threatened with abandonment and death by both chainsaw and flamethrower. “Molly is, of course, also my favorite character,” Pargin offers in her defense, “and she gets an expanded role in the sequel novel (titled This Book is Full of Spiders, on shelves Oct 2nd!). There exists on my hard drive a Jdate ‘bible’ that contains the complete stories of all of the characters who only briefly appear in the novel (such as Robert North and the Jamaican drug dealer) and I have in it the complete story of how Molly basically has to go all over town trying to solve this situation while her human companions are kind of just bumbling through it. Of course the novel follows the humans, and you only get vague hints at how busy Molly has been in between the times when we actually see her. But her relationship with David is kind of symbolic of David’s relationship with everyone. He’s too self-involved and insecure to really understand who his friends and enemies are. He is slow to recognize how Amy feels about him, he isn’t good at dealing with John’s shortcomings, he doesn’t know how to reach out for help when he needs it. This is a person whose life is full of great things and good friends, but he’s too busy feeling sorry for himself to realize it.”

The prominence of a dog in the book created an additional challenge when it came to adapting it to film. Luckily Coscarelli had some experience. “Having directed The Beastmaster, I’ve been around the block with animal actors,” he says. “Without thinking, I took an extreme risk and cast this terrific mixed breed named Bark Lee – he’s a boy by the way. (The extreme risk was to not casting two identical dogs in case a problem developed with one of them.) Bark Lee is a beautiful and sweet dog who had never appeared on screen before. His master just happens to be my producing partner Brad Baruh. When I proposed the idea to Brad, he was all for it and he showed me a lot of cool tricks that Bark Lee could already do. We brought in a trainer to work with him for a couple weeks prior to shooting. Honestly, Bark Lee was one of my easiest actors to work with. He’d come in, do his scenes and not give me any grief – a total professional. I hear Bark Lee is not happy that the movie is over – he doesn’t get to hang out on the set, go to locations, do his own stunts – he’s back to a humdrum existence chasing the occasional skunk around his back yard.”

In many ways, Molly is the story’s most grounded character, and she offers a necessary alternative perspective on the events related to us by the narrator – as does its other female presence, Amy. Amy also provides a romantic impetus that defies the logic of time and space (and corporeality, even). But when we first meet her, she is described as an autistic compulsive puker with a missing appendage. The book itself is inconsistent in her physical description, largely because she is seen through another character’s eyes and that character’s perception of her changes throughout the story. “The over-arching joke of Jdate is its awful narrator,” Pargin explains. “The entire tone of the story and its viewpoint is skewed by a narrator who is really stunted in a lot ways, and who himself isn’t really following the plot of the story all that well. It’s made clear early that you can’t trust what he says, or what he sees, or how he perceives what he sees. Everything is told through his eyes, and he’s wrong about a lot of things. So one of the central jokes of the story is that David is very quick to make observations about trivial things (what type of coffee cup a person drinks from) but very slow to notice the obvious. He notices what is silly about Robert Marley before he notices that he is dangerous, he sees only what is annoying about having a dog around without realizing what is special about the dog. And as you mentioned, he notices what is ugly about Amy years before he finally sees what is beautiful about her. Amy of course is the mirror opposite – she looks past what’s ugly about David and immediately realizes why he is the way he is, and sees what’s unique about him.”

Of course, David’s fear of the sincere is poignant in itself, and his struggle to accept his feelings for Amy is matched only by the recognition that with John the charismatic man-child he really does have a friendship worth monumentalizing. “I can’t pretend that John and Dave are exact fictional versions of anybody (the real story of me and my real-life best friend and frequent writing partner Mack Leighty would not be entertaining at all) but the idea of being two friends at that age without a lot in the way of opportunities or prospects or stable relationships is definitely real,” Pargin admits. “Good horror always picks a setting that sets the mood – an abandoned house, a lonely cabin, etc. For me, I couldn’t think of a setting that would establish slow, creeping dread any better than being in your 20s in an economically dead city. You see your friends become losers or meth addicts, and you realize that you can’t imagine any happy future for yourself. That slow, dark realization that you might not have anything of value to offer the world, and thus might not ever truly belong, is scarier than any meat monster.”

Luckily for Pargin, this wouldn’t be his own fate. “Less than six months [after the offer came in from Don Coscarelli] I would get the offer from Cracked.com to buy my comedy site, merge it with theirs, and hire me full time as an Editor,” he recounts. “But they didn’t know about Jdate until after the fact, it was just coincidence that the two opportunities came along at the same time after eight years of giving away everything I had written for free and working myself deeply in debt in the process. So it was kind of an overnight success story that took almost a decade to occur.”

About the author:

Kier-La Janisse

Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, founder of Spectacular Optical Publications and The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival (1999-2005) in Vancouver, was the Festival Director of Monster Fest in Melbourne, Australia and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012) and contributed to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington, 2014) The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (University of Toronto Press, 2015) and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (PS Press, 2017). She co-edited (with Paul Corupe) and published the anthology books KID POWER! (2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017) and Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (2017). She edited the book Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive (forthcoming), and is currently co-authoring (with Amy Searles) the book ‘Unhealthy and Aberrant’: Depictions of Horror Fandom in Film and Television and co-curating (with Clint Enns) an anthology book on the films of Robert Downey, Sr., as well as writing a monograph about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. She was a producer on Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime: the Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s and Sean Hogan’s We Always Find Ourselves in the Sea and her first film as director/producer, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is due out from Severin Films in 2020.

Comments

  1. Any chance this is coming to Fantasia 2012? :)

    8 yearss ago
    • Kier-La Janisse
      kier-la Reply

      It may be in the cards, but stay tuned for announcements in late June/early July!

      8 yearss ago
      • seem to casually flip off a bargrae of unspeakable evil. In a book that opens fighting meat-ghosts with ’80s glam rock, you know you’re in for something special. It’s all about the soy sauce, a mysterious substance that chooses its takers and imbues them permanently with an ability to pick up on the doings of other dimensions. In the short term it can provide an insight into spacetime so profound as to tell them just where to go to get a large sum of cash, or how a chicken lived its life before becoming an entree. It’s also the key to an invasion from the beyond, but it doesn’t end there. The evil wants in, at any cost, and it’s not above even cheap schoolyard-style bullying to get its way. Luckily, Dave and John know just how to handle that. The bizarre thing about this book is that it is literally laugh-out-loud funny, but at the same time it’s hide-under-the-bed scary. It is neither horror with comic relief nor comedy with a horror theme. It’s both pure comedy and pure horror, two books coexisting in one, which should be impossible but somehow David Wong can pull it off. It kept me hooked right up to the end, for more reasons than just to find out how John dies.

        8 yearss ago
  2. Jar Reply

    What kind of dog is Bark Lee?

    6 yearss ago

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