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The First Run Focus

Pictures from Words: John Dies At The End

Chris Scalzo

Little known fact: I am the only literate member of The First Run crew, past or present.  Call it a failing of the public school system or evidence of society’s decline but the fact remains that I am the only one on this motley crew who consistently reads for pleasure.  So while Scalzo is by far the most passionate about art and film among us, Dave has forgotten more about gadgets and electronics than I will ever know and Espo…well,  uh…run’s road races and obstacle courses, I guess…none of them are qualified to discuss the written word since they avoid it like the plague of nonsense shapes they are.  Upon finishing my last novel, I thought “Hey! They made a movie of this!  I should watch it!” And after watching it, I said to myself “Hey!  Scalzo is always bugging me for stuff for his site so I should write articles so I should write about the two! Maybe that will shut him up!”  So with that inner dialogue, I embark on this journey into well-worn territory knowing I will soon get in over my head….the first in a semi-regular feature, I hope.  So in the words of a great man, buckle the fuck up for:

John Dies At The End - Book vs. Film


The novel was written by David Wong, the pseudonym for senior editor Jason Pargin.  The book began life as a serial novel published on Wong’s website in which he used reader feedback to tweak the narrative as he went.  70,000 people had read the online version for free before Wong’s capitalistic instincts took over and it was removed.  


Plot wise, the “hero” of our story is David Wong, who just happens to be the very same author of the book.  Don’t stop to think about that too much or your skull might collapse under the weight of the novel-written-by-a-pseudonym-where-the-protagonist-is-the-pseudonym meta-ness. Dave lives in a non-descript, undisclosed mid-western American city working in what has to be one of the last video stores in the country.  The framework of the novel is Dave telling the tale of how he and his best friend John (aka John Cheese, pseudonym of fellow writer Mark Leighty) came to be paranormal investigators extraordinaire and keepers of forbidden knowledge to reporter Arnie Blondestone (not a real person, as far as I can tell.  You’re safe). 

The story is broken into three major arcs or acts, connected by the retelling to Arnie.  The first act details how Dave and John first came into contact with a drug called Soy Sauce, a black liquid that grants the user strange powers and blows the doors of perception so wide open Jim Morrison would have soiled himself.   Dave, John and a group of friends face down a series of otherworldly threats with a showdown in the Luxor Las Vegas against the forces of darkness. The second act involves Dave and John confronting a possessed tv news personality and a fight through an abandoned mall that is explicitly and hilariously modeled after a level from a first person shooter.  The final installment involves Dave and John’s search for a missing friend into a strange dimension.  

Overall, the book is a fun blend of Lovecraftian horror and ridiculousness.  The humor is often pitch black with a healthy dash of the ludicrous.  Undisclosed is populated by souls who would fit right into an early Linklater film.  Wong, while a decidedly unreliable narrator, is fun to root for and John’s over the top characterization juxtapose nicely with the often graphic and unsettling (in a good, horror novel kind of way) violence.  The serial format genetics show in the novel and not everything hangs together at all times.  There are some particularly egregious deus ex machina that are jarring, even for a cosmic horror-comedy hybrid but if you are willing to over look that, the prose is crisp and the story pops right along at a quick pace.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.    




That’s why I was pretty stoked to see the film adaption.  Directed and adapted by Don Coscarelli, he of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep “fame”, I was hoping I would be in for a treat.  What I got, however, was decidedly underwhelming as a Chunky bar.  On the positives, Coscarelli brings a definite visual style to the film with a saturated color palette hemmed in by an ocean of moody darkness that seems to always exist just out of frame.  He does an excellent job of setting angles and making normal things seem off, bringing the right amount of unease to the proceedings.  However, the whole effort is brought to a screeching halt quickly by two issues:  the acting and the adaption itself.  

First, the acting is terrible.  I guess I should have expected this going in given the budget of the film but the actors are just not up to the task.  Chase Williamson plays Dave as a bug eyed, nasally schlub with annoying facial ticks.  John makes out even worse as played by Rob Mayes.  Mayes has that D-List attractiveness that is utterly non-descript and seems desperately out of place here.  Imagine a stereotypical bro doing a Stifler impersonation and you get the idea.  The lone acting bright spot is Paul Giamatti as Arnie, who is his usual excellent self in a mostly small part.  

The bigger issue is the adaption choices made by Coscarelli.   When I say this movie is adapted, I mean it has been heavily condensed and changed from the source material. Other than the riddle of the universe sequence and the prologue of the book, nothing makes it in unadulterated in some way.  Normally, this type of thing doesn’t bother me but I think the film is betrayed by the narrative structure of the source.  By creating three almost completely self contained episodes, author Wong created an adaption nightmare.  As such, large swaths of the book are omitted entirely.  The second episode is excised completely while the first and third are combined and reworked into a generally unsuccessful remainder, if you know the source.  The big final twist of the book is completely absent which weakens the entire experience, in my opinion. 

The Winner

The book, in a landslide.  This would be an instance where I would encourage you to watch the film first and then completely forget it before you pick up the superior novel.  

- Matt Howell

Matt was once the co-host of the First Run podcast.  He has since moved on to focus on parenting and other general skullduggery.  

The film is available on Blu-Ray, DVD & Netflix Instant Viewing.


5 Reasons Why Star Trek Is Better Than Star Wars

Chris Scalzo

During this missive, I am going to attempt to prove to you why Star Trek is better than Star Wars.  But first we need to come up with a name for Star Wars fans.  Trek already has ‘Trekkies’ or ‘Trekkers’ as they prefer to be called to be taken more seriously.  But what are the Star Wars fans called?  I’ve decided to go with ‘Warsers’.  I considered just ‘Wookies’ for awhile, but felt that wasn’t really in the tradition of ‘Trekkers’.

Also, my focus is going to be on the original crew.  I’m not a TNG (that's 'The Next Generation' for the uninitiated) guy. I never bought into Picard, Riker and the rest.  There was always something more exciting and fun with the original trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  And you Warsers should be happy since I’ll only be drawing on 3 seasons and 6 films (3 films, let’s be honest here).

5. Whiny Kid vs. The Living Embodiment of Sex Panther

In Luke Skywalker we have young whiny kid.  Who wants nothing more to explore the galaxy, and ditch his one bantha town.  In between tantrums because he can’t hit the local Toshi’s to grab some power converters, and getting jealous of one of the smoothest mf’ers in the galaxy because he wants to make out with his own sister, Luke is the pinnacle of late 70’s sensitivity and androgyny.  Who would you rather follow into battle?

On the flip side, Captain Kirk is a man driven by duty and the urge explore the universe, ignoring the prime directive whenever he deems it appropriate.  Or a super hot alien girl.  And that’s the difference.  It’s as if Han Solo was our central character. Charming, brilliant, and dangerous.  And he shoots first.


4. Better Space Fights

Let’s start with this.  What was the name of the first Space Shuttle?  Was it the ‘X Wing’?  ‘Millennium Falcon’?   Granted it never orbited the planet, but it was still named after the legendary NCC-1701.  Now is the Death Star bad ass?  Yes.  So much so that it recently sparked an online petition to the White House to actually be built.  But the Enterprise WAS built.  Well, sorta’.  

But that’s not even the point.  The Enterprise versus the Reliant.  The Enterprise versus a Romulan Bird of Prey (that can even fire when cloaked!).  The Enterprise versus the big grey thing from ‘Into Darkness’.  Star Trek is at its best when it fully embraces its naval theme, ala Start Trek II and VI.  Can the Enterprise maneuver like an X-Wing, no.  Can it make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  Come on now.  Warp drive…

Are the dog fight scenes exciting?  Yes.  Redundant?  Possibly.  Plus there’s no exhaust port in the Enterprise that will blow up that magnificent marvel of engineering.  And there’s regality to her.  The Enterprise is a majestic ship.  I would put the final act of Khan versus any of the ship battles in all of the Star Wars films.

3. Diversity

Lucas’ galaxy dominated by the Aryan race is troublesome.  It’s as if Drax’s plan ultimately succeeded.  (That’s the film version of Moonraker, not the novel)  It’s white folks as far as the eye can see.  If not, then it’s cuddly animals, ala the wookie and ewok.  The lone brother (can I use that term?) is Lando Calrissian.  Does he run an entire city?  Yes.  But he can’t even get one on the ground.  They stick him in as far away from the planet’s surface as possible.  And he’s the only minority even there.

So how does Lucas rectify this situation?  With the prequels, and does it horribly.  Who doesn’t look back upon the Neimodians of the Trade Federation and their stereotypical greed, and cowardice, and Asian accents fondly?  I’m surprised they weren’t wearing Stars of David as well to drive home the greed trait.  Is this on purpose with malice?  Of course not.  It’s an over simplified reaction to a fair, if not ultimately meaningless charge.  This still didn’t stop me from bringing it up.

Roddenbury’s and Trek’s answer?


Boom!  First inter-racial kiss on television (even if they didn’t technically smooch).  Minorities and women play a much larger role in the Trek universe, but it’s not without its problems.  Uhura’s dresses in both iterations of the series is troublesome, a fact rectified by Abrams in ‘Into Darkness’, that he subsequently undercuts immediately with Alice Eve in her skivvies.  But as a whole, the Trek universe embraces diversity in every known corner of the galaxy.  Star Wars merely shoe horns it in, embarrassingly so at times.

2. Mythology

Star Wars, what the hell happened?  Midichlorians?  So it’s NOT a mythical religion?  It’s a biological ability, like telepathy, or pooping?  Trek doesn’t really have the mythology Star Wars has.  So I was tempted to just call it a wash.  Tempted.  But then Lucas decides to just re-write the entire thing.  And don’t give me ‘Abrams did the same thing’.  His reboot, not prequel mind you, backs itself up by using the time travel plot device to open up a myriad of possibilities for existingTrek adventures and characters, while not, how can I put this artfully, taking a big taco bell sized bowel movement all over every thing that came before. He can now update all of them for a new generation, without destroying their beloved, or perhaps even despised, pasts.

Plus Trek has the United Federation of Planets.  A galaxy spanning force for peace, when Kirk isn’t blowing things up or violating the Prime Directive.  Imagine the U.N. with some balls and nothing but good folks on the Security Council.  No hocus pocus, or whatever Warsers are calling it now.  Because it clearly isn’t ‘The Force’ I remember.

1. The Message of the Films

Star Wars is a soap opera in space.  A kid’s fairy tale set in a distant past in a galaxy relatively far away.  Trek is the future.  Our future.  Roddenbury and crew tackled some heady issues during its television run, and again with the film series.  Star Wars never attempts to reach for the lofty heights that Trek does.  There’s no existential crisis, no questioning of man’s role in the universe, no pursuit of mankind’s greater purpose.  Nope, just a surfer dude from a small, two sun planet with Daddy issues.