Directed by: Paul Bunnell
Written by: Paul Bunnell, Steve Bingen, Mark D. Murphy, George Wagner
Starring: Will Keenan, De Anna Joy Brooks, Les Williams, Reggie Bannister, Paul Williams, Kevin McCarthy
Bad boy alien Johnny Xavier (Will Keenan) and his gang The Ghastly Ones are charged with theft and civil disobedience. They are exiled to Earth by the Grand Inquisitor (the late, great Kevin McCarthy) until they can demonstrate an unselfish act.
One year later, after finding shelter in a desert cave, leather-clad Johnny and his rebellious teen followers are still no closer to redemption. It seems Johnny’s main squeeze, Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks), has decided to escape from the gang to find fulfillment elsewhere. After wandering for days, she stumbles into a diner on the outskirts of the desert, befriending a naïve soda jerk named Chip (Les Williams).
Also at the diner are music promoter King Clayton (Phantasm’s Reggie Bannister) and his girlfriend, who are hiding from the press. King’s client, rock star Mickey O’Flynn (The Office’s Creed Bratton), has skipped out on his latest concert and upset his legion of fans. This is evidently big local news, as an interview with Clayton himself is telecast on the small set behind the counter. Hot on the trail of Bliss, Johnny and gang find her at the diner, where a big musical fantasy number attempts to explain the vague motivations of everyone involved.
While Johnny seems to want to reconcile with Bliss, he also has some unfinished business with missing rocker O’Flynn. Post-song, Bliss and Chip narrowly escape The Ghastly Ones and take shelter at a nearby drive-in movie theater. Bliss explains to Chip that she has stolen Johnny’s nifty resurrection suit which, when worn, allows the wearer to take control of others through an electrical current.
Back at the diner, to keep the peace, King Clayton reveals that he knows the whereabouts of O’Flynn and can take the alien ruffian and his gang right to him. Coincidentally, King also promises that he can deliver Bliss and the resurrection suit once they are back at his theater. Chip falls for Bliss and decides their best chance to escape Johnny and The Ghastly Ones is to find his uncle — who happens to be King Clayton. Once all the players are gathered at Clayton’s desert theater, Johnny’s true motivation for seeking out O’Flynn is revealed, and an opportunity for an unselfish act presents itself.
Writer/director Paul Bunnell’s The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is a visual valentine to low-budget ‘50s science fiction films. It was shot in gorgeous black-and-white and deftly captures the mise-en-scène of such desert-lensed genre classics as Them and The Amazing Colossal Man. It also recalls the nostalgic spoof The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and its follow-up The Lost Skeleton Returns (in which Bunnell appears in an acting role). But unlike the Skeleton films, Johnny X has a much more ambitious agenda. It’s a satire as well as a full-on musical with several uneven songs written by Scott Martin.
Some of the numbers feel like the second half of a Broadway show where certain pieces are reprised in medley form. The trouble is, these are not reprises, and the outcome is a bit jarring and not especially pleasant. The one song that almost captures the magic of a traditional musical is “These Lips Never Die,” sung appealingly by Brooks. But none of the lyrics to the songs are very clever and the music is all pastiche. True to musical convention, the songs often further the narrative but never feel successfully integrated into the scenes. Save for Brooks, none of the ensemble are especially strong singers, making the numbers all that more awkward. The Rocky Horror Picture Show this ain't.
Keenan, who showcased a goofy charm as Tromeo in Tromeo and Juliet, is a charismatic presence and truly delivers in the more outrageous scenes. Brooks, as the femme fatale of the piece, is the standout. She has a nice singing voice and great comic timing. It’s unfortunate that, halfway through the film, she sports an ugly wig, completely different from her previous hairstyle — and it’s not a little distracting. Les Williams gives a sweet performance as the smitten soda jerk, though he’s a bit too old for the role.
Solid character actors Bratton and Bannister give some weight to the production, often bettering the comic book dialogue they are given. The film’s loveliest surprise is actress Kate Maberly (Finding Neverland), who arrives late to the party as an innocent teen groupie. Her understated, genuine performance stands out in a film filled with broad comic portrayals. Famed singer/songwriter/actor Paul Williams makes an odd, but amusing cameo as television personality Cousin Quilty. It was a smart bit of casting, but it only serves to remind the viewer how much better The Phantom of the Paradise is in comparison.
The true star of The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is cinematographer Francisco Bulgarelli, whose wonderful black-and-white imagery gives the film a polished, professional sheen. It was shot with the last remaining Eastman Plus-X Negative Kodak film stock ever produced (and has since been discontinued). Bulgarelli’s cinematography in Johnny X manages to elevate the piece in spite of its many flaws. The lighting is exceptional, the rear-projection sequences are beautifully rendered and there even appears to be a visual homage to Grease 2 (bonus!). Though the script (credited to Bunnell, Steve Bingen, Mark D. Murphy and George Wagner) and songs certainly try to capture a manic sense of fun, it’s the photography and inspired framing of the action that make the production worthwhile.
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is currently playing the festival circuit. For those still curious after reading this review, it would behoove you to see it on the big screen in all its black-and-white celluloid glory.