Girl Meets Context: It’s Indie Horror Month, where we cover some of the best original and independent horror movies to be released in the last few years. John Dies at the End is cult director Don Coscarelli’s (of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-tep fame) adaptation of the cult novel by Cracked.com writer David Wong (which is actually a pseudonym for Jason Pargin). The movie chronicles the misadventures of two slacker jocks who experiment with a psychedelic drug known only as “soy sauce” as they battle demons from other dimensions. Told using traditional film noir structures, the film combines comedy, horror and science fiction elements. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie and bring Indie Horror Month to an end. If you haven’t seen John Dies at the End please be forewarned that our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: Okay. So I realized that, except for House of the Devil and The Descent, all the films for Indie Month have been horror comedies. Why do you think that is the subgenre of choice for modern indie directors?
Sean: You know what, you’re right. Obviously, my personal tastes have influenced this outcome, but when I surveyed the best indie horror movies of the past few years, they all seemed to have a comedic undertone. Maybe that’s because the horror genre itself has a certain baseline absurdity to it? I guess a lot of modern directors feel obliged to use that to their advantage.
Sean: I have this to say: This month started out strong for me and ended with a whimper. I think watching/discussing Detention ruined John Dies At the End for me a little bit…. Or maybe, as you are pointing out, I just feel exhausted by horror comedies.
Kristine: Oh, I feel bad! I liked John Dies at the End!
Sean: Did you notice the director’s name?
Sean: He is…
Sean: Don Coscarelli! (a.k.a. Mr. Phantasm).
Kristine: Oh! My honest guess was that he was Polish, Sean!
Sean: Just don’t say “Polack,” Kristine. That’s the one thing this blog has taught us.
Kristine: Don’t worry. Okay, knowing that this was made by the Phantasm director makes me like it less.
Sean: I didn’t tell you beforehand because I was afraid you’d hate it just because of the association.
Kristine: But I just hate it now, retroactively! Okay, not hate, but I am mad and rolling my eyes because Coscarelli has clearly not updated his themes or interests (time/space travel and homoeroticism).
Sean: I like the question that you opened our discussion with, about the preponderance of horror comedies. I’m wondering, is the contemporary default to horror comedy a sign that we are living in an age of cynical irony? Where nothing is heartfelt or “serious”?
Kristine: I don’t know.
Sean: Are you mad now? Has the very mention of Phantasm ruined this whole discussion for you?
Kristine: Nah. Not really. But you didn’t address my point about Coscarelli being a one-trick pony! Do you remember the NAMBLA hair-stroking in front of a roaring fire scene from Phantasm?
Sean: I see what you’re saying. Just to fill in the context, this movie is an adaptation of a novel by a writer for Cracked.com. So it is not Coscarelli’s original work, like Phantasm was. It is his adaptation of someone else’s thing but you’re right that there are similarities between Phantasm and this.
Kristine: I know he didn’t write John Dies at the End but he chose it. It’s not like it was assigned homework for him!
Sean: He chose it, true. And he did write the adapted screenplay himself, so this is Coscarelli’s interpretation of the novel. I haven’t read the book, but the word on the street is that he did a pretty good job capturing the novel’s spirit.
Sean: I am feeling very ‘meh’ about this movie right now also. Rewatching it with you, I liked it way less than when I first saw it. I think I have post-Detention exhaustion.
Kristine: Aww. I have a question, but I don’t want to make you sad.
Sean: What’s your question?
Kristine: I was wondering if Bark Lee reminded you of Oliver and if you were sad when he sacrificed himself. [Editor's Note: Oliver is Sean's beloved chocolate lab who passed away unexpectedly last year, leaving him bereft and empty for all time.]
Sean: Jesus. You are like… a spirit harpy!
Kristine: That’s what I was thinking about during the movie! I’m sorry!
Sean: You enjoy inflicting psychic pain.
Kristine: OMG, stop it! I retract the question.
Sean: No, it happened. Now we have to live with it. Um, I didn’t think Bark Lee had any Oliver-like qualities, did you?
Sean: Like what?
Kristine: Bravery. Soulfulness.
Sean: You are now kissing up.
Kristine: To whom? Oliver?
Sean: To me! “Bravery”? LOL.
Sean: Oliver was brave? Um… ok.
Kristine: You are being mean because I upset you.
Sean: Maybe. If I am I apologize. But he really wasn’t. He was the Cowardly Lion!
Kristine: Okay. I think we should move on.
Sean: No I really want to know! You think he was brave?
Kristine: I don’t know anymore! I want to forge ahead!
Sean: Well, if you were wondering if I liked Bark Lee, I did.
Kristine: I liked Bark Lee, too.
Sean: I thought he was adorable and great. I don’t like dog-deaths in movies. It makes me really mad.
Kristine: Yeah, me too.
Sean: BUT the cartoonish-ness of Bark Lee’s death did undercut the sadness.
Kristine: I loathed Amy. She was out of a Kevin Smith movie, and he is on my “Most Loathed Director’s List.”
Sean: The fake-hand girl? She was just a cipher. I thought John was hot and charismatic, even if he was kind of bro-ish. I thought David was a total fucking nightmare. I wanted to punch him in his privileged middle-class fucking smug face.
Kristine: I figured you would think John was hot. David was Michael from Queer as Folk. And John was Brian Kinney, but dumber. And they were a couple.
Sean: I think the homoeroticism in this was much more Apatovian than the legit incest-queerness of Phantasm. That is to say, it’s more homosocial and phallocentric than straight up gayness.
Sean: Actually, this and The Revenant both had the same amount of homoeroticism to me – where its about the tropes of the buddy comedy and how women are accessories only in Guyville.
Sean: Can I just point out how fucked-up straight guys are in the head? God! They have so many insecurities and phobias about the opposite sex. Like the girl in this movie bursting into snakes? I love how mainstream culture likes to tell this story that men are “simple” and women are “complicated.” It’s such a lie.
Kristine: Agreed. Remember the Western music at the end? Like the movie was a serial TV western, where the two of them visit a new dimension every week and do battle.
Sean: Yes, it was a tv ending. If this had been a really popular movie, I bet it would get adapted into a tv show. Though there’s all ready a CW show that fits the bill – Supernatural. What did you think about the Eyes Wide Shut dimension in this movie?
Kristine: It was visually terrifying and beyond grotesque, but I was entertained. I found the whole movie pretty consistently entertaining.
Sean: Yes, I would agree with that. Was Paul Giamatti fun?
Kristine: Giamatti was fun. I loved his expletive-fueled reaction when he sees the giant bug thing in the cage. But I was wondering if you found the movie, overall, to be guilty of a gratuitous upping of the ante (á la Detention) upon re-watching it with me.
Sean: Hmmm… I found the pace of this much more measured than Detention, which was literally four visual gags and three quippy one-liners every 5 seconds. This felt more traditional, if anything, in contrast to Detention. But would you agree that there’s a real Hunter S. Thompson vibe to this movie?
Kristine: Oh, absolutely! Umm, I have another question to ask you.
Sean: Yes, dear? I am all love and sunshine.
Kristine: Hmmmm…. I was wondering if you died during the bugs-infesting-Fred’s-body scene. I feel like I finally understand your intense hatred and fear of flying insects now! You think they are going to use you as a host body!!!
Sean: I do want to say that as a man, I have mostly moved beyond my boyhood fear of the flying insect. But I did love that stuff with the icky bugs.
Kristine: Me, too.
Sean: I also really love the psychedelic “soy sauce” stuff. That’s my favorite part of the movie. Also, that “imaginary” cop in the questioning room whose moustache turns into a flying bat? I thought he was legitimately scary.
Kristine: I loved the flying moustache rip!! And the Adolf Hitler visual joke once his arm gets torn off.
Sean: Yes. This movie is silly and goofy at times in a way that is charming. However, not all the bits work. I thought the hot-dog-as-phone bit was dumb.
Kristine: Speaking of, I don’t know if you noticed the statue in the “Eat Your Dog” shop, but…
Sean: I didn’t notice. What is it?
Kristine: A man-sized hotdog with a super scary face who is squirting mustard and ketchup on his own head…. I am sending you pics of it now.
Sean: Oh gross eww. I am dying. That statue is sick.
Kristine: Did you like the Mall of the Dead?
Sean: It was fine. I didn’t love it. I hated Robert North, the emaciated man who pops up in David’s truck and puts that gross penisworm on his chest. That actor… He literally IS the embodiment of the word/concept “AIDS.”
Kristine: Ha ha ha!!! Who would you do it with in real life – Robert North or that Hot Dog come to life?
Sean: Hot dog, hands down. So this movie has been called an “instant classic.” Is it?
Kristine: I don’t know about “instant classic.” You’d have to ask me in a year. But like I said, I found it consistently entertaining, which is very rare, even in a good movie.
Sean: You don’t think John is hot? Is David more ”your type”?
Kristine: Neither. John had a good body and a sort of sexy way about him but his face was too dumb for me.
Sean: What about… his band?
Sean: Was he Anthony Kiedis?
Kristine: I died during that scene! That band was actually totally on the nose for what is was.
Sean: Hahahaah. I thought that, too.
Kristine: Was “Robert Marley,” the Jamaican drug dealer/death dealer wicked racist?
Sean: Well, it was pretty meta right? Wasn’t it revealed that the accent was a put-on?
Sean: I mean, I thought it was intended to be a self-aware parody of the “Magical Negro” archetype. I mean, we’ve seen how many Magical Negros in horror movie club so far?
Kristine: Too many.
Sean: Right. I thought that’s what John Dies at the End was making fun of. Whereas movies like Jeepers Creepers and Final Destination were dead serious about that archetype, this movie is poking fun at it.
Kristine: I accept that.
Sean: Plus I thought this movie was openly deconstructing ideas about race, especially with the reveal that Paul Giamatti’s character, Arnie, was really an African-American guy who had just been imagined as white by David… It is so rare for a movie of any genre, but especially a horror movie, to even openly address race that I felt charitably about John Dies at the End. Plus, I found Glynn Turman as Det. Appleton to be incredibly charming.
Kristine: Me too, I love him.
Sean: He and Giamatti both brought grizzled, character-actor realness to a movie that would have felt way less consequential without their presence. Also, as a side note, Turman has horror movie/nerd credentials. He starred in a classic blaxploitation horror movie called J.D.’s Revenge and also he was in Gremlins. Plus, George Lucas wanted to cast him as Han Solo, but didn’t in order to avoid the controversy of an interracial Han/Leia romance. Plus, he was once married to Aretha Franklin!
Kristine: OMG. Giamatti and Turman both made the actors playing John and David appear more lightweight, if you ask me. That doesn’t actually hurt the movie for me, though, since they are supposed to be goofy lightweights.
Sean: So I’d like to do some of my typical overreaching and theorizing if you can stomach it.
Kristine: Go for it.
Sean: Well, I’m interested in the drug culture/psychedelia angle to the movie, which was so Fear and Loathing/Basketball Diaries/Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Did all the drug culture/psychedelic experience stuff feel like a relic from another era to you? I feel like this movie attempts to recast the hippie mystics of yore into a couple of dudebros, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Thoughts?
Kristine: Huh. I didn’t have that thought when I was watching the movie. Now I am wondering… do the kids even do acid anymore? Are psychedelics totally “out”?
Sean: This is my point!
Kristine: I agree about how this movie recasts those archetypes. John and David are unlikely seers, which is totally a hippie thing.
Sean: I’m wondering what the connection between the tropes of psychedelia and the horror genre are.
Kristine: The connection is that what you imagine in your own mind can be 1,000,000 times scarier than any external threat.
Sean: I feel like this is yet another example of people from the heart of the mainstream co-opting and adapting the aesthetics/rituals/practices of the margins. I mean, John and David are so fucking middle-class and square and dudely. I kind of am getting mad about it. Fucking jocks!
Kristine: But their average-ness is the point.
Sean: Dudebro jocks do not get to live out interdimensional sci-fi fantasies. No. Me and Patton Oswalt will take them down.
Kristine: Wow. You are like, defensive and protective of drug culture!
Sean: It’s not just that! Sci-fi culture! Horror! Pulp! Punk! These are the subjects of the freaks. Jocks go home (unless they’re gay jocks, then bend over).
Kristine: I was just going to say! You want to do the sex with them, you just don’t want them co-opting your culture! LOL!!
Sean: This movie wanted to be Harold & Kumar but it wound up being Abercrombie & Smashmouth.
Kristine: Hee!! You are totally recreating my indignant reaction to Detention right now, albeit for different reasons.
Sean: I am irate.
Kristine: Is this just Don Coscarelli being obtuse, or is it more?
Sean: Well, but this is the thing. I mean, David Wong himself – the author of the novel this is based on – is a total straight white guy who has taken the pseudonym “David Wong.” I mean I get it. He’s a comedy writer – a white guy with an Asian last name? Hahaahah. Also, its supposed to be post-everything right? Post-racial. Post-modern. Post-irony. But I still don’t know how I feel about it. But to restrict my bad attitude to the movie itself, a couple of lacrosse players who are play-acting at being psychedelic seekers, punk fans, horror nerds, sci-fi geeks… It just totally fucking grosses me out.
Kristine: Maybe that’s just part of the “horror” element of this horror movie.
Sean: I guess it is!
Kristine: It’s weird because I didn’t mind when this movie borrowed things from other films/parts of culture and then treated it all very lightly… Whereas in Detention it enraged me.
Sean: Well, to backtrack a bit, I think you’re right about the connection between horror and psychedelia, The doors of perception can also be the gates of hell, right?
Kristine: Hell yes.
Sean: But again, this does not seem like a timely concern to me. The youth culture of today is not about exploring the furthermost reaches of consciousness through psychedelics.
Kristine: What are they about?
Sean: I don’t know! Snorting lines and dubstepping? MDMA and stripping down to their underwear? I’ve watched all five seasons of Skins for godssakes. Did you like/buy the movie’s “soy sauce” conceit?
Kristine: I liked the visuals of the soy sauce creature… Funny but gross and interesting all at once. Why did this movie charm me but Detention, which is just as madcap and meta-textual, annoy the piss out of me?
Sean: Is it just that JDatE is funnier?
Kristine: Well, you know I am not a sci-fi person, but I liked how JDatE employed the commonly-used trope of having one character call the other from the future (or sometimes it’s the character’s future self) and how, after a very short minute of flipping out, David just accepts it as the new reality and goes with it.
Sean: I think partly it is because JDatE picks one main genre to inform itself (film noir) and sticks with it, simply layering it with different shades and flavors but always keeping to the basic noir structure and rhythms. Whereas Detention flailed madly between genres.
Kristine: I agree that that is why it works. It does commit to its story and to a dominant style, which makes it more satisfying and engaging for me as a viewer.
Sean: I also love the calling from across time-and-space stuff and the visit to the munitions factory and things like that.
Kristine: Yeah, me too. And I usually am like “here we go again” when straight sci-fi movies do it, but it worked for me here. I also loved the meat monster with the turkey anus mouth. Awesome.
Sean: Yes, the weirdness of that scene was great.
Kristine: My roommate wants to know if you consider JDatE a good example of “bizarro fiction.”
Sean: “Bizarro fiction”? I’m not sure what he means.
Kristine: Me neither. I am just the messenger. Maybe like Hunter S. Thompson and Kafka?
Sean: I think it is a good example of pop postmodern kitsch. That’s what I’d say. But I haven’t read the novel this movie was based on, so I also don’t feel qualified to say…
Kristine: Okay. What’s your rating for this?
Sean: Hmmmm…. I need to create a new rating to address this whole situation. I think my rating is: “If today’s misfits are yesterday’s dudebros, then wherefore Truth and Beauty?”
Kristine: Mine is “Better and weirder than I expected”.
Sean: Hmmmm… If a bunch of Duke Lacrosse players stole all of horror and sci-fi from my hands, you’d buy them all lattés. This is war.
Kristine: Shut up. I will temper my rating with a “but still too many Kevin Smith-isms for me to fully embrace.”
Sean: A cowardly concession. Now don’t you have a water polo match to get to?
The Girl’s Rating: Better and weirder than I expected AND Too many Kevin Smith-isms for me to fully embrace.
The Freak’s Rating: If today’s misfits are yesterday’s dudebros, then wherefore Truth and Beauty?