The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (2012)
Dir. Paul Bunnell
2.5 out of 5
A love letter to 1950s exploitation films, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X features a kitschy concoction of juvenile delinquents, fawning teenyboppers, and exiled aliens converging around the recent disappearance of a popular singer (Creed Bratton), a pioneer in the outlaw country genre of "cactus rock." The titular hero (Will Keenan) - leader of a coed gang of extraterrestrial hoods called the Ghastly Ones - is also searching for a piece of technology that absconded with his former flame (De Anna Joy Brooks): a suit that lets the wearer turn the living and the dead into his personal finger puppets. The suit comes in handy when the hard-living Bratton expires just before his big comeback show at a desert music hall, but it doesn’t take long before this fabulous alien technology is wrested away by forces far more sinister than intergalactic greasers.
It’s all a hoot until Johnny X’s madcap plot is quickly overwhelmed by an obsessive quoting of its creators’ arcane cultural tastes. And did I mention that this film is a musical? It is, at least for a little while. It starts with a lavish musical number but approaches the genre haphazardly for the remainder of the film, with gaps just long enough to make the cast's transition into song-and-dance mode consistently jarring. (That's a shame - the entendre-laden songs are some of the film’s brightest spots.) Writer-director Paul Bunnell nails the hothouse look and feel of a ‘50s cheapie, but rushes through important characterization, like a revelation about Keenan's parentage and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it villain turn, and favors dialogue choked with clumsy period slang.
Still, Johnny X has a somewhat noble quality. Bunnell's go-for-broke homage will surely enthrall as many viewers as it alienates. That's ok, given that the film is also distinguished by its relative wholesomeness, a sort of John Waters-lite for people who like their nostalgia skewed but their actors freshly-scrubbed. It's just really, really difficult to dump on such an obvious passion project (Bunnell purchased every last remaining scrap of Kodak's Eastman Plus 5231 film stock to get that perfect black and white drive-in movie look), and the film operates with the conviction that what it's doing is the cutting edge of cool. I badly wanted to like Johnny X, what with its commitment to carving a new niche for the B-movie trends of yesteryear. But its total immersion in ‘50s chinziness kept reminding me, inconveniently, of the reasons why those trends faded away in the first place.