The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (SF IndieFest)
There are some pacing and narrative issues, but ultimately Johnny X is an enjoyably wild and surprisingly slick-looking adventure that is worth a look.
A decade in-the-making, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is a retro-tinted window into the mind of director Paul Bunnell, mashing together influences from sci-fi B-movie flicks like Flash Gordon and musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease. The combination of the two genres (with touches of various other eccentric influences) works well, though it’s not quite as explosive as it should be. There are some pacing and narrative issues, but ultimately Johnny X is an enjoyably wild and surprisingly slick-looking adventure that is worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of over-the-top, genre filmmaking.
Johnny X is a too-cool-for-school greaser a la James Dean and The Fonz who gets banished to earth from a far-away world. Followed by his gang of goons, the Ghastly Ones, Johnny chases after his ex-girlfriend, the sultry siren Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks), and a soda jerk with a heart of gold, Chip, who have stolen his powerful “Ressurection Suit”, which grants its wearer with the ability influence others in a powerful way. In their epic cat and mouse pursuit, they sing songs, dance their asses off, and have a fateful run-in with an aging former rock star, Mickey O’ Flynn (Creed Bratton), who is mysteriously linked to Johnny.
While the tone is light and the goofs are plentiful, Johhny X actually takes a long time to build up steam. Some of the scenes and musical numbers in the first half of the film are entertaining enough to grab your attention, but the film loosens its grip with slightly overly elongated scenes of dialogue and exposition that aren’t funny enough to sustain the momentum the musical and action scenes generate. In the second half of the film, however, gloriously strange sets and imagery, gigantic performances, and a refreshing shuffling of allegiances help to create a more kinetic pace. Johnny uses his Resurrection Suit to take control of Mickey O’ Flynn’s body puppeteer-style in the film’s most visually hilarious and unforgettable musical number. The more outrageous the film gets, the more fun we have. The film stumbles when scenes are stretched out, and could definitely trim some fat in areas to make Johnny X all killer no filler.
The film’s title and posters scream schlocky B-movie, but don’t get it twisted; Johnny X looks lightning slick. Filmed in lush black and white on the now discontinued Kodak Plus-X film stock, Bunnell’s 10 years of work can be seen in the impressively high production values. There are moments where you’ll be laughing at the zany absurdity of the scene, when suddenly, you’ll realize that what you’re watching is actually pretty damn good-looking. The visuals in Johnny X are always rich, always interesting, and are one of the films biggest strengths. The film’s other big strength lies in the well-choreographed and sung musical sections. The cast really shines in these moments, and the pieces are arranged well. There is a scene where Bliss dances, prances, taunts, and teases around good ol’ Chip in a parking lot that’s phenomenal, mostly due to the gifted Brooks.
The rest of the cast do a fine job of getting through the songs and dialog with flair, but Brooks as the sexy Bliss and Bratton as the decaying Mickey O’Flynn steal the show and give their performances that extra “oomph” that helps to propel the film forward. Brooks dominates the screen every time she’s given the opportunity, and Bunnell gives her lots of room to work her magic. Bratton goes balls-to-the-wall and chews up everything in his path. He has doesn’t hold anything back, and he’s so gross, so repulsive, so unflinching, that you can’t help but eat it up. Will Keenan as Johnny X has no problem embodying the super-cool aura that the role requires, but isn’t quite as convincing in his quieter scenes.
Though Johnny X has its flaws, the feeling I was left with at the end of the film was pleasingly positive. It was a joy to watch this 50’s sci-fi throwback in 35mm, and provided an experience I’m not sure I’ll see again for a long while. Though it starts off somewhat slow, it ramps up towards the end, which is better than if it had been the other way around. What makes this film work is the passion Paul Bunnell injects into it; he obviously loves and is a connoisseur of the genres he pays homage to. For fans of wacky genre film, this is definitely a film worth discovering.