REVIEW – John Dies At The End (2012)

JDATEVideovista have my review of Don Coscarelli’s drug-addled urban fantasy John Dies at the End.

Based on a novel by Jason Pargin writing as David Wong, John Dies at the End follows a pair of generically handsome American youths (with ‘Close Boy Faces‘ naturally) as they are sucked into a weird and evocative demimonde in which they are compelled to battle ghosts, demons and genetically-engineered Cthuloid deities. The reason I go on at considerable length about JDATE being a work of urban fantasy is that the film is clearly desperate to escape that label:

Given the structural and social barriers involved in getting a work of urban fantasy made for the big screen, it is perhaps unavoidable that most marketing departments try to position works of urban fantasy as being part of more socially acceptable genres. Thus, The Matrix trilogy was successfully marketed as a work of science fiction, while the cowardly and ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Hellblazer comics was described as a ‘supernatural action-thriller’ lest girl-cooties alienate the intended audience. John Dies At The End continues this somewhat inglorious tradition with a PR campaign that tries to distance the project from the literary context that inspired the original novel, and reposition the film as the kind of gonzo horror/ comedy you would expect from the man responsible for both the Phantasm series and Bubba Ho-Tep.

The wikipedia entry for the film describes JDATE as “dark comedy-horror”.

The wikipedia entry for the book describes JDATE as “cosmic horror”.

Why should this be?

The answer has quite a lot to do with privilege and the ways in which we are socialised into a particular gender. The straight white men of today are like the painted French aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France: Pampered and protected by economic and social systems that are as unjust as they are unstable, straight white men live in unconscious fear of becoming declasse or reduced in status to a lower social rank like that of woman, BME or LGBT.

Once upon a time, the trappings of masculinity were so instantly recognisable that all a man needed to do in order to protect his privileged status was to grow a beard and either run off to war or get a job that required him to wear a tie. However, as society has been shaped and re-shaped by the tidal forces of global capitalism, the trappings of masculinity have been commodified to the point where cloaking yourself in the traditional trappings of masculinity no longer serve as a basis for differentiating one group from another. However, because straight white men are trained to take pride in their status, they are forever on the lookout for things that will identify them as straight white men and distinguish them from everyone else. Maybe it’s liking football, maybe it’s wearing sports gear, maybe it’s drinking pints, maybe it’s talking about how much you enjoy sex in a loud and boisterous manner. The problem is that every time straight white men find a way of broadcasting their group membership, fashions change and people from other groups begin adopting those characteristics. This has made straight white men hypersensitive to any product that might make them look like they might belong to a lesser social class, and this is where Urban Fantasy comes in.

Urban Fantasy shares about 80% of its DNA with Paranormal Romance. In fact, the only difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is that Urban Fantasy places ever so slightly less emphasis on the romantic sub-plots. This association is somewhat problematic as reading Romance novels is one of those characteristics that is so unquestionably feminine that it is enough to alienate most straight men. In fact, some straight white men are so uncomfortable with the connections between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance that they have tried to re-write the history of Urban Fantasy to exclude as many female authors as possible. This is why JDATE is being marketed as “dark comedy-horror” rather than the work of cinematic Urban Fantasy it so obviously is.

Another result of the association between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is that Urban Fantasy is a genre with very little critical status. In fact, it’s quite telling that what I liked most about this film is the director’s valiant attempts at resisting genre narratives even though they were built into his film at script level. Some might argue that this is a reflection of my own privilege and failure to take the red pill and move beyond the gendered aesthetics fed to us by our culture but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Our aesthetic preferences are built into us on the same level as our personality traits and there’s a point at which getting free of the system is effectively indistinguishable from becoming an entirely different person.