Sunday 21 April 2013

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (2012)

Director: Paul Bunnell
Stars: Will Keenan, Creed Bratton, De Anna Joy Brooks, Reggie Bannister, Les Williams, Kate Maberly and Kevin McCarthy
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I've been to a lot of film festivals and I've heard a lot of Q&As, but I've never seen a movie that its own cast and crew apologised for as much as this one. Director Paul Bunnell is a bouncy, eager and enthusiastic soul who clearly loves film. He doesn't just love movies, he loves that film stock feel enough that he collects 16mm and 35mm prints and bought up the last Eastman Plus-X 5231 Safety stock after production of it was discontinued so that he could shoot this in glorious black and white 35mm. He also spent over a decade of his life making this movie, the earliest scenes being shot as far back as 2002 and production stopping and starting again every time funding ran out or he managed to secure more. His cast and crew didn't believe it would ever get finished, but he stuck with it and here it is at last on the big screen. Yet his enthusiasm while presenting it was all for his next film, Rocket Girl, which he promises will be so much better than this one.

For a while, it's actually pretty good. The perpetually hip and thoroughly defiant Jonathan Xavier has been arrested and hauled in front of the Grand Inquisitor for, well, being perpetually hip and thoroughly defiant or some crime like that. The judge stands tall and strong, resplendent in his decorated Devo hat, but Johnny X waggles his eyebrows and manipulates him like a voodoo doll. And so he and his followers are exiled to the planet Earth, with one single hope that 'an unselfish act will bring you home.' A year later they walk out of a cave, a not so magnificent seven looking rather like a gang of juvenile delinquents from the fifties. There are four guys and three chicks, each sex with its own finned out Thunderbird to spin up desert dust. Meanwhile, into some diner in the middle of nowhere walks a bunch of curves called Bliss. She's Johnny's girl and she needs the help of Chip the soda jerk because the lizards are hot on her trail.

It's wild and it's wacky, with characters who are colourful even in black and white. As it becomes a musical, with lots of catchy refrains layered over each other, it feels like a winner. There's a strong Forbidden Zone vibe, with catchy music from Ego Plum, who coincidentally is working with Danny Elfman on the upcoming Forbidden Zone sequel. It's lively stuff, with a host of characters to keep us intrigued: the wicked cool Johnny with three varied stooges and a bevy of beauties with initials on their jackets to back him up, all to take on his dangerous dame who's stolen a dastardly device from him called the Resurrection Suit. All he has left to spark up a confrontation in the diner is an electric glove, but it's enough to keep him on top for now. Caught in the crossfire is King Clayton, a dubious promoter who reacts when the news on the diner TV highlights that Mickey O'Flynn, the Man with a Grin, the King of Cactus Rock, has disappeared.
In short we're thrown into this all at once, rather like Chip the soda jerk, and like him we're tasked with finding it in ourselves to leave our comfortable lives for a journey through whatever musically twisted retro-wasteland Paul Bunnell has conjured up for us. Frankly, at that point, we're all for it, and if we weren't, having the bountiful bosom of Bliss thrust into our face at an empty drive in as she sings a sultry salsa called Hips That Never Lie is enough to persuade us. We're reminded of a slew of cult musicals, only beginning with Forbidden Zone and including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Repo! The Genetic Opera and Phantom of the Paradise, films that maintain an enthusiastic following however long it's been since they were released. I saw Repo in a packed theatre before the shadowcasters took control and the promise in the air felt like the calm before a storm. For a little while, the same promise hung in the air here, but unfortunately only for a little while.

The point at which the film starts to fall apart is after we discover a dead Mickey O'Flynn on King Clayton's stage being badly manipulated as a puppet. The flashback scene that explains how he died during a business discussion is a long, slow one that doesn't contribute much of anything to the movie except to take all the momentum built thus far and beat it to death. Suddenly we start to notice a whole host of problems that become more apparent as the picture runs on. I honestly never thought I'd say this about a musical but there aren't enough songs. What's more, the best ones are the early ones, meaning that any of the energy generated early on gradually dissipates. Scenes that ought to rage merely whimper, like the catfight. Plot convenience rears its ugly head in a number of ways all at once, not all of which I feel comfortable outlining in a review. A third of the way in is an odd time to throw out a crucial plot twist though.

Perhaps the largest and most abiding problem is that The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is a product of its evolution. Creating a movie by patchwork over a decade doesn't bode well for consistency and having no less than four writers massage the script during that time bodes even worse. Even the title becomes rather meaningless, not only because we can never really be sure what the ghastly love of Johnny X is but because the story gradually ceases to be about Johnny X at all. Even as we discover that Chip is Clayton's nephew and so bringing the Resurrection Suit to him means that it gets handed right over to Johnny, we switch focus to Mickey O'Flynn, rather bizarrely given that he's dead. But hey, the suit is so named for a reason and it inevitably sets up the rest of the film. The only reason that we can't write the rest in our heads is because suddenly Sluggo decides that he needs a rebel moment and turns from Johnny X stooge to James Bond villain.
Early on, Will Keenan was solid as Johnny X, pouting and posturing as if he's a cartoon version of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, a great character for someone who started as Tromeo in Tromeo and Juliet. However he's consistently not fed the material he needs to maintain the persona, so as the film runs on, he simply fades, baby, to black. Instead we watch Mickey O'Flynn, as patchwork a character as the movie he finds himself in. When he's still alive, he's a hybrid of Johnny Cash and Crispin Glover, with plenty of Roy Orbison thrown into the mix and maybe some Grandpa Munster too. After he dies and is brought back by the Resurrection Suit, he becomes either John Wayne as a zombie Bill Murray or Bill Murray as a zombie John Wayne, one or the other. Creed Bratton, best known for the American version of The Office, is fascinating to watch as the King of Cactus Rock, but we continually wonder why we're watching him, even as we forget about Johnny X.

The second half of the film would be a complete train wreck, if only there weren't a host of magic moments to enjoy liberally sprinkled amongst the dreck. As good guys turn bad and bad guys turn good, weak characters become strong and strong characters become weak, all with apparently no explanation, we start to despair. As plot conveniences, questionable decisions and unfathomable script directions multiply, we wonder why we're still watching. But we can't stop watching Mickey O'Flynn, whatever inappropriateness he's getting up to. We certainly can't resist Cousin Quilty, a quirky talk show host played by the wonderful Paul Williams. He was originally cast as O'Flynn, but couldn't dedicate the time needed so was thankfully shifted over to Cousin Quilty, a gift of a part for him that he nails to perfection. The costumes, sets and dialogue occasionally get it very right. 'The party isn't started,' says Clayton to his girl Lily, 'until I see the whites of your thighs.'

It's entirely clear where this film went wrong, not just to us but to the people who made it. If Paul Bunnell had secured enough funding to make this in one shot, whether back in 2002 or in 2012, it would likely have been a riot, if not the cult favourite it obviously dreams of being. If it had been written by one writer, instead of being rewritten by four, it would surely have had more coherence and consistency. The actors did their best, but these conditions were tough. Keenan isn't fond of his work here and he does vanish from our attention after a strong start. He raves instead about De Anna Joy Brooks, who does the same to a lesser degree. The first twenty minutes would be a great short for them, but the feature isn't theirs at all. A film with this imagination and flair, with Keenan, Williams and Bratton, not to mention Kevin McCarthy in his last screen role as the Grand Inquisitor, should have resonated but now I want to forget it and go see Rocket Girl instead.

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