Review of The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (dir. Paul Bunnell, 2012):
Did someone say ‘juvenile delinquents’?
Immediately my antennae are tweaked. I share the same camp fascination as John ‘Cry-Baby’ Waters when it comes to this other phenomenon in 1950s propaganda known as the ‘juvenile delinquent’. You know it too, so beautifully propagated through the likes of the 1958 horror classic, The Blob, starring Steve McQueen as the ringleader of juvenile delinquency, and Marlon Brando’s mumbling, surly bad-boy in The Wild One.
At a time when ‘Apple Pie’ America was set to collapse under ’60s counter-culture rebellion, a juvenile delinquent represented the bucking of predisposed family values; those greasy-haired, motor-cycle riding, gum-chewing, insouciant adolescents that inhabited diners and turned a mocking shoulder to the face of authority. They’re the rock ‘n’ roll-generated threat to mid 20th-century conservatism. Compare them to the nasties of today and they’re as squeaky clean as Palmolive (think of those dancing gangs in West Side Story, for instance) but, for a certain generation, they represented the disintegration of the Great White American Dream.
Ah, bring back the juvenile delinquents, I say.
So, imagine my delight at stumbling across a new millennium spin, but with a retro aesthetic, on the juvenile delinquent phenomenon in the form of The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, not to mention – gasp! – these JDs are from outer space! “Gee whiz”, I think. “This film’s gonna be a blast.” And it certainly lives up to the gorgeously graphic-designed poster pitch, belying its modest inception as an independently-made feature film (and I must emphasise ‘film’, as this little darling was shot on the last of Kodak’s 35mm black & white Plus-X film stock, which is highly unexpected in this digital age).
In a sublime mash-up of genre forms that works surprisingly well because it is actually good – not ‘good-bad’ in an Ed Wood Jr sense of the term – Johnny X kicks off with an intergalactic criminal court where Kevin ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘ McCarthy (in his final role before death) sentences Johnny (Will Keenan) and his gang known as ‘The Ghastly Ones’ to exile on Earth. What follows hereforth is a sci-fi/dark comedy/musical/romance with a touch of horror that essentially follows The Ghastly Ones on their search for Johnny’s sassy former girlfriend, Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks), who’s taken off with the all-powerful ‘resurrection suit’. Amid all this, Johnny grapples with some parental rejection issues – as the song goes, ‘What’s up with Johnny?’– that leads them to encounter all sorts of colourful Earthlings, one being musician-turned-(small)-movie-star, Paul Williams, as talkshow host, Cousin Quilty.
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X really comes together in the details. In order to make such a concept pop, this one needed as much research as guts and gumption to see it over the line, and filmmaker Paul Bunnell has obviously invested a significant amount of time and money into making sure his film rises to its many, many sources of inspiration. I can see John Waters in here; I can see alien invasion films; I can see the big monster movies of the atomic age; I can see West Wide Story; I can see James Dean’s oeuvre; I can even see a bit of Frankenstein and Re-Animator. The fact that Bunnell has managed to rope all these influences together into the one cohesive package is a feat that deserves ‘high five’ recognition. The songs by Ego Plum and lyricist Scott Martin (apparently added late in the production process) aren’t quite that of Bacharach or Leiber & Stoller, but they’re tight, finger-snappin’ ditties that recall the show tunes of a bygone era and ornament the film perfectly without overwhelming it.
I can’t help but imagine hoards of ginchy guys and girls with coiffed hair and leathers turning up at weekly midnight screenings of Johnny X in years to come, screaming out the one-liners at the top of their voices, mimicking the choreography and booing the bad guys. It has that kind of Blue Brothers/Rocky Horror vibe that begs to be experienced on a big screen with a mutually appreciative audience. I’d go so far as flagging it as a cult hit waiting to be discovered, just as long as it can find the crest of a wave to ride to shore.
“The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is a very personal project which encompasses many of the things I love about the movies. I started working on the project in 2002 and would not rest until I saw it through to completion in 2011. If I had listened to what the naysayers thought I should do, the movie would not have gotten started, let alone finished. Thankfully, persistence paid off and I completed my dream project with no major compromises. It is my wish that its images will become a lasting part of your film vocabulary – the stuff that dreams are made of.” ~Paul Bunnell, 2012
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is currently playing at film festivals worldwide.