Alt JOHNNY X one-sheet. The folds make it feel like vintage 50s.



In 1956, Kevin McCarthy starred in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.  His most famous film, it rages against the evils of conformity and how we lose everything when we sacrifice those things that make us individuals.  56 years later, McCarthy’s last film is about to hit the festival circuit, and it’s a fitting bookend to his work in BODY SNATCHERS.  THE GHASTLY LOVE is, both in form and theme, a bold statement against conformity, a brilliant black-and-white sci-fi musical from the ghastly mind of Paul Bunnell with cult legend Will Keenan in the title role.


JOHNNY X starts off at a sentencing.  The Grand Inquisitor rails against nonconformist Johnny for his various crimes and threatens to send him to Earth.  But Johnny has a trick up his sleeve—or literally, on it.  He’s wearing the resurrection suit, a leather concoction that allows him to control others.  Refusing to apologize, Johnny is incarcerated on our planet.  But there’s a problem.  Johnny’s girlfriend Bliss has stolen the suit, and Johnny needs to get it back if he ever hopes to escape Earth and raise Hell back on his home planet.  As he and his gang chase Bliss across the desert, Johnny will encounter a slimy concert promoter and his girlfriend, a dead rocker, Bliss’ new boyfriend Chip the soda jerk, and a power struggle within his own group.  There’s envy, lust, and most of the other Deadly Sins, and elaborate song-and-dance numbers along the way.


Thematically, JOHNNY X speaks to me.  At first, it seems the film is saying conformity is good;  Johnny refuses to succumb to it, he’s obviously the defiant one, and right off he’s not a good guy.  He’s disrupted the social norms, and barring any apology, he’s punished for it.  His exile to Earth grants him instant outsider status, and he revels in it, playing it up as a hoodlum and leading a gang.  But later the film gives his family situation and abandonment issues as rationale for his actions.  This doesn’t justify them, but does shade the character more positively.  When the tables are turned on him in the third act, Johnny must turn hero to get the girl and save his gang.  Rising up, Johnny proves that nonconformity can be a virtue even in the best of us.  He gets to eat his cake and have it too;  exercising his free will, the choice to be heroic is just that, a choice.




Johnny oozes cool. Keenan nails it again.



Anchoring the film is Will Keenan’s performance as Johnny.  Add another brilliant, edgy performance to the actor’s catalogue, alongside Tromeo, Casey Kaufman and Will Nitch.  Keenan brings depth to Johnny, able to conjure the heel and later the emotional side with aplomb.  He keeps the performance just left of center, creating an offbeat Johnny in a role that could have amounted to a stock character.  But then, I’ve come to believe that Keenan is incapable of delivering a performance that’s not edgy and brilliant.  He’s one of the reasons I took interest in JOHNNY X in the first place.  More people need to know Will Keenan’s name, and see his movies.




Two great actors, one visionary director



The initial draw to JOHNNY X for me was Kevin McCarthy.  I found the flick’s website back in 2007, and I was thrilled finally to see McCarthy in it.  He’s only in one scene, but it’s a crucial role, as he’s the Grand Inquisitor who banishes Johnny to Earth and sets the plot in motion.  In a filmic sense, it’s an interesting turn for McCarthy.  His most famous film rails against the evils of conformity;  here, he’s not only on its side, but enforcing conformity from his position as an authority.  Leave it to Kevin to wow the film world in his last hurrah.  As for the performance itself, Kevin brings his usual dignity and class to the affair, and rocks a Devo-style hat like no other.  He does a great job, and gets the final word during the end credits, which you should watch.




Directing a legend in his last role



The rest of the cast creates a top notch ensemble.  The mix of name actors, genre favorites and lesser known faces, includes Reggie Bannister, Creed Bratton, Paul Williams and Kate Maberly.  Bannister stands out as the sleazy promoter, and Williams is particularly unctuous as late night host Cousin Quilty.  Bratton is clearly having a ball as the undead rocker.  As Bliss, De Anna Joy Brooks is a revelation.  She’s got a great voice, and sells the sex appeal in every scene.



Johnny drives some of the gang




Visually, Bunnell made a great call and chose to shoot in black-and-white on the last of Kodak’s stock.  The film has a crisp look, and his cinematographer understands how to light b&w.  The choice yields a nostalgic feel, perfect for what is essentially a 1950s era throwback, even if it never mentions a time period.  Bunnell also includes vintage Chesterfield ads, which enhance the retro effect.  An interesting aside:  Best Picture Oscar nominee THE ARTIST was filmed in color and post-converted, so JOHNNY X will be the last true b&w film shot on the Kodak stock.  This gives the film a historic importance.


As for the songs, they move the film along.  They’re not “Hey, look at Chips hat” type songs, thank God.  Instead, they’re actually inherent to the action of the plot.  They’re also a lot of fun.  I admit I’m not a big musical fan, but JOHNNY X is that rare musical that works for me.  It must have been Hell for Bunnell to coordinate all that singing and dancing, but he pulls it off.




Johnny uses the resurrection suit



As far as the sci-fi aspect goes, it’s basically a flick about juvenile delinquent aliens, and the troubles they present on Earth.  It’s a loving look back to the genre efforts from the 1950s, when both teen rebellion and alien invasion flicks were at their peak.  Horror fans will find some light horror in here, when Johnny resurrects rocker Mickey O’Flynn so he can croon to the ladies.  O’Flynn suffers from the typical zombie travail when his flesh starts to peel off, but that still doesn’t make him any less sexy to the ladies.  It’s all played out for fun, but if you’re a gorehound and avoid the flick because there’s no bloodbath, you’re missing out on a great flick.  Give it a chance.


Therein lies the greatest challenge JOHNNY X will face as it meets its audience.  A film about refusal to conform, it defies normal categorization because it doesn’t conform to the Hollywood machine.  It’s a b&w sci-fi retro musical without any big name stars.  It’s more likely to find a niche audience than any blockbuster success, and that’s a shame.  After all, art is really supposed to be about unique individual expression, and you don’t get much more unique or individual than THE GHASTLY LOVE OF JOHNNY X.  The film challenges its audience to try something new, and in the bargain it’s a great ride.  If anything, I hope all the plaudits for THE ARTIST bring some recognition to Bunnell’s film, and people seek it out.


THE GHASTLY LOVE OF JOHNNY X hits on all cylinders for me.  It’s a fun ride, the unique vision from the ghastly mind of Paul Bunnell.  It’s a great way for Kevin McCarthy to end his long career, and I wish it the best of success, and hope it finds its audience.  Because it deserves to.


-Phil Fasso


Photo Credits

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X photos by Sara Ross-Samko and David Keeler, courtesy of Ottermole Moving Picture Company.  Used by kind permission.  


Special thanks to Paul Bunnell for his contributions to this review.

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