As someone who is admittedly ¾ a retro girl, I can be a little leery of any current filmmaker trying to recreate the silver nitrate, tinfoil spacecraft, pony-tailed vixens and all of those wondrous things that populated the cult cinema of 1950’s America. However, when I saw the trailer for The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, all of my cynicism immediately melted. This was a film that I absolutely had to see and write about. Luckily for me, the trailer was just a cherry cordial for a film that is ripe with all sorts of cult-y goodies.
Filmed in glorious, in fact, downright sumptuous Eastman Plus-X black and white, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X begins with our titular character, Johnny Xavier (Will Keenan), being put on trial by The Grand Inquisitor (Kevin McCarthy, in his last film appearance) on his home planet. In a utopian-by-way-of-Milquetoast standard, Johnny’s transgressions, which include the low crimes of “civil disobedience” and “petty theft,” land him and his motley gang of alien JD’s on one of the most tumultuous planets in the universe—Earth. The only thing that can bring him and the gang back home is a truly unselfish act.
One year later, Johnny and his gang, “the Ghastly Ones,” are stalking the desert, trying to track down former cohort and his ex-flame Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks). It ends up not being too hard of a task, thanks partially to her weakness for an ice cold coke (glass bottle, of course). The trail leads hot towards an exquisitely box-like diner in the middle of the sticks. Sitting in the same diner is King Clayton (Reggie Bannister), a down-on-his-luck music impresario who is on the lam after his insurance from the loan sharks disappears under mysterious circumstances. The insurance in question is in the form of rock god and “the man with the grin,” Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Bratton), a long haired guru and, coincidentally, a hero to Johnny.
Before Johnny and the other Ghastlies arrive on the scene, Bliss flirts heavily with overgrown soda jerk, Chip (Les Williams). There’s only a short amount of time to confuse and arouse the good natured Chip before her ex shows up. And show up he does, breaking into a large musical number that transforms the diner into a Caligari-meets-The Forbidden Zone set. The music ends up doing nothing to better Johnny’s mood. Bliss has something of his that he wants. The object in question? His “resurrection suit,” a device that can force control on others. He starts to menace her, but before he can further the interrogation, one of Chip’s testicles drops and he rescues the sexy, mysterious lass.
King, seeing a golden goose opportunity, strikes a deal with Johnny. He’ll bring him the girl, if Johnny can help him out with Mickey. Along the way, villains become heroes, heroes become undead, an abandoned drive-in pops up, more musical numbers than you can shake an ice cold bottle of Coke at, a cat fight and the Paul Williams appearing as a ghoulish chat show host named, appropriately enough, “Cousin Quilty.” (Lolita no-no!)
The first thing that stands out about The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is, without a doubt, the visuals. It has been a long time since I have seen a recent black & white film look this good. Something that may get lost on a lot of folks is that the technique needed to properly light black and white film can be vastly different than lighting color. In some ways, color can be a lot more forgiving, so to make black & white really pop, you have to have a crew that a 100% know what they are doing.
The second thing that stands out is what a fun film this is. It’s cheeky, silly and most importantly, sincere. You cannot pull this kind of movie off, especially in this day and age, if you do not truly love, know and honor the genre. Director Paul Bunnell, who also made the equally 50’s-esque film, That Little Monster, back in 1994, rules this material and never lets the film get too serious or sink under the weight of its own kitsch. It’s not the easiest balance in the world, but he manages it just fine.
The cast is equally great, with the three standouts being Keenan, Bannister and Bratton. Will Keenan, who first came into my periphery back in the late 90’s for his standout work in Troma’s Tromeo & Juliet and Terror Firmer, is perfect as the handsome, extraterrestrial hood with a heart, Johnny. In lesser hands it would be complete caricature, but Keenan adds an impressive amount of depth to the role. In my world, Will Keenan is A-list in the true sense of the term.
Speaking of awesome, Reggie Bannister is one of the absolute kings of character actors, so getting to see him in a substantial role in such a good film was a huge joy. Like everything the man has done, he’s great as the likable, slightly seedy, complete with white fedora and omnipresent cigar, King Clayton. It’s too bad that he does not get to sing more, especially given his musical background, which includes playing with guys like Van Dyke Parks. Reggie Bannister should be in everything.
Creed Bratton, thankfully, does get to sing quite a bit, including one of the best numbers, the flying saucer rock & roll song “Big Green Bug-Eyed Monster.” Most will be familiar with him from his work on The Office or being a member of the legendary 60’s group, The Grass Roots. Whatever you know him from, he’s terrific as this burned out yet charismatic rock star. If anyone can live up to the phrase “decayed swagger,” it is Bratton as Mickey O’Flynn.
The rest of the cast is great too, with Brooks being one powder-keg of a dame as Bliss and Williams every inch of earnest square Chip. It ‘s very sweet seeing the late Kevin McCarthy lending gravitas to his role as the Grand Inquisitor, all the while wearing a very glam cape and a glittery approximation of Devo’s energy dome. Kate Maberly deserves some notice as the fresh-faced devotee of Mickey’s. There’s not a bum rat in the cast.
The music is mercifully terrific. (Remember, the only thing worse than a painfully bad comedy is a painfully bad musical.) The soundtrack in general is quite good, with The Moon-Rays delivering the goods with the “Ghastly Love Theme.” (For the record, they also do a killer cover of Glenn Miller’s “Swinging at the séance.” It’s not in this film, but still worth checking out.) Speaking of modern, retro-cool bands, The Ghastly Ones, the name of Johnny and his gang, is also the name of one uber-cool, groovie-ghoulie surf rock band. Of course, it could also be a reference to cult-exploitation director Andy Milligan’s 1968 opus, The Ghastly Ones. Either way, it’s a good thing.
If you love science-fiction, rock & roll, a bonanza of brilliant character actors, dungaree dolls with knives and a film with some heart, then you will be thrilled to the gills with The Ghastly Love of Johnny X.