Tag Archives: Doug Jones

150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

“The name grabbed me instantly, but when I read the log line about a street drug called ‘soy sauce’ and a pair of mid-west slackers battling a silent otherworldly invasion, I was hooked. Since my youth I’ve had a rabid interest in the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres.  Many of my previous films have explored the surreal and strange.  What I love about JOHN DIES AT THE END is that in addition to being hide-under-the-bed scary, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”–Don Coscarelli, director’s statement

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rob Mayes, , , , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A college dropout named David Wong tells a story to a journalist at a Chinese restaurant while under the influence of a drug called “soy sauce.” He reveals that the sauce has given him and his friend John psychic powers that enable them to see inter-dimensional intruders who are bent on conquering our reality. He then relates the story of how, together with his one-handed girlfriend and her dog, he and John traveled to the alternate dimension to thwart the invasion.
Still from John Dies at the End (2012)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Dies at the End was adapted from a comic novel of the same name. The name of the story’s protagonist and the author are both “David Wong,” which is actually a pseudonym for Jason Pargin. “John Dies” began life as a short story posted on Pargin’s blog.
  • Don Coscarelli had been working on a sequel to his previous feature, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), with , but funding fell through. Giamatti supported the idea of adapting John Dies at the End instead, and served as executive producer on the substitute project.
  • Coscarelli credits Amazon’s recommendation algorithm with suggesting the novel “John Dies to the End” to him.
  • The movie’s prologue is a modern zombie-based variation on an ancient philosophical paradox called “the ship of Theseus” (in the book, the prologue refers to an ending that is not explicitly present in the movie).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We can’t actually mention the movie’s most memorable image here, both thanks to the fact that it’s obscene, and that doing so would spoil what may be the movie’s best joke. Those who’ve seen the film already, however, will doubtlessly remember the door that “cannot be opened.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jason Pargin wrote a sprawling comedy novel in part about two party-hearty college dropouts who take a mysterious drug nicknamed “soy sauce” that makes them clairvoyant, enabling them to perceive an invasion by demonic forces from another dimension. Don Coscarelli, the writer/director of Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series, took note of this literary property and decided to adapt it, chopping up the timeline and adding hallucinatory demonic visuals until the result plays out like a bad trip brought on by shooting up way too much of an experimental psychedelic drug.


Original trailer for John Dies at the End

COMMENTS: Here’s an unexpected spoiler for you: John doesn’t die at the end of John Dies at the End. At least, I don’t think he does. But it may Continue reading 150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

LIST CANDIDATE: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

NOTE: John Dies at the End has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the official Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A young paranormal investigator relates his strange and twisted backstory to a skeptical reporter. It involves alien creatures, a drug that gives its users heightened senses and psychic abilities, and a parallel universe whose twisted denizens are edging their way into our own.

John-Dies-at-the-End


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its labyrinthine plot and genre-bending themes make John Dies at the End an interesting experience, with plenty of bizarre characters and twists, but at times the film is just weird for the sake of being weird, forsaking good storytelling in the process.

COMMENTS: Blending the well-worn motifs of alien invasion, inter-dimensional travel, and the over-confidence of youth into a heady concoction of oddities, John Dies at the End isn’t easy to summarize, or even encapsulate. The narrative flits back and forth erratically as Dave (Chase Williamson) attempts to communicate his experiences to a bemused journalist played by Paul Giamatti. It all starts—sort of—with a late-night phone call from Dave’s excitable friend John (Rob Mayes), whose ingestion of an out-of-this-world drug known as “Soy Sauce” sends him down a time-traveling, mind-reading, future-predicting rabbit hole. Dave accidentally takes some Soy Sauce himself, and soon he is escaping from a hardened police detective (Glynn Turman) who suspects him of several gruesome murders, while trying to save John and two other high school friends who’ve been kidnapped by a demonic being from an alternate universe. And then a lot of other stuff happens, but not always in chronological order.

Without prior knowledge of the webserial/novel this is based on, John Dies at the End can only be a surprise. It rapidly transitions between wry humor, gross-out gore, paranormal mystery, hallucinatory freak-outs, and sci-fi adventure, all set amidst general confusion. This is the type of film that was made to be a cult classic, with little hope for or interest in appealing to a wide audience. At times this obvious intention to be weird means that the film’s comedic and mystery elements are sacrificed for nonsense, but if you’re looking for straight-up bizarre then it’s not a huge loss. The low-quality special effects are mostly excused by unique visual ideas and some well-placed animation.

With its nonlinear narrative structure and consuming focus on strange happenings, the film doesn’t spend too much time developing characters, and as the protagonist Dave is a little weak: for the most part Williamson just shows off his “Sarcastic Inner Monologue” expression or various reaction faces. He and Mayes are both very regular-seeming guys, the kind you probably knew in high school or college. They are surrounded by a charismatic supporting cast, including the lovably loudmouth Giamatti, the imposing Clancy Brown, the hardcore Glynn Turman, and the naturally creepy Doug Jones. Shuffled about by an intricate story and ever-uncertain motivations, they seem to relish the script’s absurdities.

John Dies at the End is uneven as a whole, driven to episodic distraction with an abundance of half-realized subplots and unanswered questions, but it has a way of worming itself into the brain that results in a kind of fascination. The twisted creatures, unexpected sight gags, colorful settings, and surreal visions create an idiosyncratic aesthetic that’s as funny as it is fantastic. Frozen meat comes to life, mustaches fly through the air, headless zombies attack, alien bugs take over unsuspecting drunk teenagers… By the time Dave and John leap into an alternate dimension populated by nude figures with eerie masks ruled by a giant hyper-intelligent spider monster, I was convinced of its Weirdness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everybody pretty much gets weird throughout this trippy head-shaker of a movie. It’s hard to be sure if the film adds up logically — seems doubtful — but it’s so bizarre you don’t much care.” –Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE (2010)

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Joann Sfar

FEATURING: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Anna Mouglalis,

PLOT: Recounts the life of French singer Serge Gainsbourg, from his formative days as a

Still from Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010)

young Jewish boy in occupied France through his relationships with Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin—and also his relationship with his spindly, scary puppet alter-ego.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A brave biopic that’s true to Serge Gainsbourg’s rebel spirit, but in terms of weirdness, it only goes about halfway.

COMMENTS: Growing up as a precocious Jewish boy in Nazi occupied France, young Lucien Ginsburg (later to reinvent himself as Serge Gainsbourg) amuses himself by drawing a flipbook fable.  A pianist (like the boy’s father) is constantly rejected because of his “ugly mug.”  The despised musician perversely embraces his detractors’ insults and wills his head to swell larger and larger until it finally bursts and the suavely deformed “Professor Flipus” emerges.  The Flipus character (also referred to as “my mug”) shows up later in life as Gainsbourg’s artistic daemon, a spirit materialized as a puppet with glowing eyes and grotesque, oversized features (the sharp-nosed homunculus looks like a debonair version of the Brainiac).  Flipus’ parents would seem to be Gainsbourg’s Jewish identity—his puppet ancestor is a six-legged, moon-faced anti-Semitic propaganda poster who comes down off a wall to dance with Lucien in the alleyways of Paris—and his insecurity about his own “ugly mug.”  Flipus spurs the budding composer to switch from painting to songwriting by “accidentally” burning up Lucien’s canvases, prods him to seduce various glamorous actresses, and grows jealous and vengeful at the appearance of a healthier muse.  Surreal moments are scattered randomly throughout the movie (an inexplicable cat butler, four costumed men who trade breakfast for a song, and visual puns referencing Serge’s albums “Melody Nelson” and ” Tête de Chou”), but it’s Flipus who provides most of Gainsbourg‘s underlying weird texture, and lifts the proceedings above the ordinary.  As an introduction for those uninitiated in Gainsbourg’s discography and biography, the movie isn’t wholly successful.  If you don’t already know who Boris Vian, Django Reinhardt and France Gall are, you may become confused when they suddenly show up or are referenced.  Gainsbourg’s scandalous music, which begins as witty, ribald chanson and develops through the 1960s into lounge-rock psychedelia, is sampled in fast-moving snippets that make it hard to see the lines of development.  The movie also suffers from the usual drawback of biographical movies: real life produces great characters, but not necessarily great stories (which is why fiction supplanted biography, after all).  Life stories tend to turn into a series of vignettes; fortunately for us, Gainsbourg’s vignettes involve him bedding Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin.  A trio of actresses—Anna Mouglalis, Laetitia Casta, and Lucy Gordon—simmer as Gainsbourg’s succession of sexy muses.  Gordon’s role is most important, but slinky Casta leaves the biggest impression as a spot-on Bardot, first seen walking a dog in thigh-high black leather boots and a leopardskin miniskirt, and later memorably dancing with a sheer bedsheet tantalizingly wrapped around her voluptuous frame.  Constantly shrouded in his own personal nicotine cloud (since the MPAA has started handing out “R” ratings for tobacco use, the chain-smoking Gainsbourg should probably earn a XXX rating), Eric Elmosnino holds his own against his eye-candy co-stars, conveying awkwardness and suavity at the same time.  Unfortunately, historical accuracy requires him to metamorphose from a charming rake into a drunken lout, so our sympathies for the protagonist sag at the end: not the take-home note you really want in a “heroic” portrait.  Still, given the limitations imposed by real life, Gainsbourg is as a successfully hallucinatory hagiography that will please fans, and make newcomers at least curious to sample Serge’s suave discography.

Director Joann Sfar adapted this, his first film, from his own graphic novel.  To his dismay, producers insisted that early versions of the trailer contain no shots of Professor Flipus (though variations have been released since that do show the creation, without hinting at his prominence).  One source reports that Serge’s daughter, weird favorite Charlotte Gainsbourg, was at one time considered for the role of her father.  On a sad note, model/actress Lucy Gordon, who played a convincing Jane Birkin, committed suicide in 2009 before the film’s release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s a bold splash of the surreal in this inspired portrait of a man whose life really is too big for one film.”–Annette Basile, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

“I’m more interested in truth than in reality.”—Guillermo del Toro, Time Out interview

Must See

DIRECTED BY:  Guillermo del Toro

FEATURING: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

PLOT:  While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity. We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill. With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.

Still from Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

<BACKGROUND:

  • Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects. He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno. Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit. If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
  • Despite not winning any major awards, eight top critics—including Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Mark Kermode—selected El Laberinto del Fauno as the best film of 2006. With a 98% positive ranking, Metacrtitic considers it the second best reviewed film of 2006 (trailing only Army of Shadows, a lost 1969 Italian classic re-released in the United States in 2006).
  • Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of our rule that the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird. The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot. The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s  head or not. The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films. Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.


Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth

COMMENTS:  You can have brilliant cinematography, masterful acting, awe-inspiring Continue reading 40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)