Hovering somewhere on the All-Out Bizarro Meter between such delirious treats as Anthony Newley’s Fellini-meets-Benny Hill opus Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969) and Roy Rowland’s Technicolor Dr. Seuss acid trip The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953), director Paul Bunnell’s extraterrestrial AIP hot rod flick The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X (2013) is, like both of the above, sort of a musical. More important, though, what all three films share is an almost suicidal devotion to Weirdness for Art’s Sake (certainly they didn’t do it for money’s sake) – and I have to say, I admire that. What else can you say about a movie that opens with Invasion Of The Body Snatcher’s old pro Kevin McCarthy (in his final film role) bravely wearing what looks like a Devo hat and gravely intoning, “I sentence you … to Earth”? It’s pretty easy to be odd, or cult, or offbeat, but it’s something else to be truly out there (fans of Keith Giffen’s mentally disturbed Ambush Bug from mid-1980s DC comics will know what I’m talking about here …)
Released last year on DVD by Strand Releasing Home Video, The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X takes its cues from ultra-subversive, lo-budget sci-fi films like Tom Graeff’s Teenagers From Outer Space (1959), Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) and Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953). The inspiration isn’t just subliminal: Bunnell literally has Johnny X (Will Keenan) and his gang of space delinquents emerge from the same cave-mouth as the bubble-headed RoMan in Robot Monster. Bald-headed actor Jed Rowen, who plays the alien heavy Sluggo here, also bears a striking resemblance to hulking Tor Johnson in Plan 9 From Outer Space, which I’m sure is more than accidental. (For those who haven’t seen it, Teenagers From Outer Space directed by Graeff aka Jesus Christ II, as he announced in a 1959 Los Angeles Times ad, is a total revelation.) The other big influence here is souped-up Fifties rock of the “Purple People Eater” and “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” variety, by way of late 1970’s punk bands like The Cramps and The Flesheaters who mashed up the primal Gene Vincent/Eddie Cochran blast of early rock with Metaluna Mutant sci-fi / horror imagery.
The plot, such as it is (and narrative isn’t really Ghastly Love’s strong suit) revolves around Johnny X and his crew being sent to that place where no civilized being would go, i.e. Planet Earth, for unspecified crimes like talking back to their elders and digging fast cars. After they arrive here, they cross paths with a squaresville soda jerk called Chip (Les Williams) who unwisely develops the hots for Johnny’s petulant, va-va-va-voom girlfriend Bliss (the delightfully named De Anna Joy Brooks) who introduces herself by prancing out of her T-bird in high heels like she’s stepping over hot coals and then barking out, “My name is Bliss. Repeat it.” At some point the storyline takes a serious left turn into sun-baked high desert psychobabble with the introduction of a reclusive rockabilly star, Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Bratton, from The Office) who resembles Hasil Adkins on a bad, bad night. Not to give too much away, but Mickey soon turns up as a corpse who, with the help of Johnny’s missing Resurrection Suit, is able to come back to life (sort of) in time to perform “Big Green Bug-Eyed Monster” to his fans in best ghoul rock style. Screaming Lord Sutch would be proud. Oh, and he picks up an incredibly perky teenage groupie, Dandi (played by Misty Mundae lookalike Kate Maberly from The Secret Garden) who bats her big doe eyes at his decaying flesh like he’s Justin Bieber …
To be honest, none of it much matters. What counts here is Bunnell’s oddball, revisionist slant on Fifties el-cheapo sci-fi / pulp cinema and his sheer love for the B&W CinemaScope frame, which has almost completely disappeared from the language of cinema these days. (Bunnell apparently purchased the very last batch of Eastman Kodak Plus-X fine grain stock to shoot the film on … Whether the film stock inspired the “X” in Johnny X is anybody’s guess but I’d like to think so.) Critics complain about the loss of B&W cinematography in general, and rightly so – but the loss of B&W Scope is maybe the most painful blow. (If you ever have a chance to see Hubert Cornfield’s The 3rd Voice (1960), Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964) or Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) – all superb examples of Scope cinematography in B&W – projected on a big screen, jump at it.) With cinematographer Francisco Bulgarelli, Bunnell does an excellent job of using the Scope frame to his advantage, most notably in the “Hernando’s Hideaway”-style number “These Lips That Never Lie” shot at a derelict drive-in. Using just two actors – soda jerk Chip and alien vamp Bliss – he manages some impressive choreography of camera, music and performers that encapsulates the Pajama Game-left-under-a-heatlamp vibe of much of the score. (My personal favorite, though, is Johnny X rhyming “Cause firstly and lastly / I am still ghastly” with his best teen rockabilly drawl.)
Cast-wise, Will Keenan (best known for Troma’s Terror Firmer (1999) and Tromeo & Juliet (1996), and later a new media guru at Maker Studios and Endemol) projects an admirable Gary Numan-like quality as alien Johnny. Even after his Act 3 conversion you can tell he’s still a wicked little boy at heart. Brooks as his outer space squeeze Bliss sinks her fangs into most of the script’s best lines – “I could really use your help … I’ve never said that to anyone before, at least with my clothes on” – and hits just the right note of high camp and low-cut burlesque queen sashaying and strutting through Bunnell’s rear-projected phantasia. Arguably the best, or at least strangest, performance goes to Bratton as rockabilly ghoul Mickey O’Flynn, channeling Bill Murray’s cadaverous self-parody in Zombieland (2009) – or vice versa actually, since this was shot well before Ruben Fleischer’s zombie-comedy. Having watched Ghastly Love several times now, I still can’t tell quite which moment it is when Bratton dies or comes back to life: he seems to be both alive and dead from the first time he appears on screen. Kudos as well to the great Paul Williams (Phantom Of The Paradise) who drifts into the film unannounced as a late-night cable-access talk show host, looking like he just sniffed glue and stuck his finger in a light socket.
The DVD itself is presented in a clear, crisp transfer in 2.35:1 widescreen with 5.1 surround sound. Extras include deleted scenes, outtakes, theatrical trailer and a tongue-in-cheek Making Of documentary (hosted by Mr. Projector). One of the stranger reveals in the featurette is that Bunnell began production on Ghastly Love in 2004 and then put it on hold for lack of funds. He resumed filming six years later in 2010 with the same cast (amazingly there seems to be little difference in appearance between the original and later footage, even down to make-up and costumes), with the film finally screening theatrically in 2012 – eight years after it began shooting.
The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X is available on DVD and for rental / download at Amazon and on NetFlix.