Nearly nine years in the making, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is the creation of director Paul Bunnell. This black-and-white science fiction musical is generally energetic, but it’s also excessively self-aware. The problem with this is that the ample bouts of cheese and ham fall flat more than they hit target, resulting in more than a few of the wrong kind of eye-rolls.
Bunnell actually got the idea for The Ghastly Love of Johnny X after seeing Teenagers from Outer Space. The resultant homage to the science fiction lunacy of the 1950s certainly takes its prompts from Tom Graeff’s 1959 picture, but its deliberate nature is stiff. Luckily the tally of musical numbers, originally not part of the plan, provides a few highlights.
The movie opens with juvenile delinquent Johnny X (Will Keenan) and his gang banished from his home planet to the horrors of Earth for failing to conform to the rules. The catch is that X can earn his way back if he commits a “good deed.” When the Ghastly Ones become aware of a so-called resurrection suit, they set off after it.
One of X’s gang, a femme fatale type named Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks), seeks the help of a soda jerk named Chip (Les Williams) to get away from Johnny. But their paths cross and the group seeks out the resurrection suit, with X attempting to use it to bring his father Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Bratton) back to life. When things get wildly out of hand, X and his gang have a choice or two to make.
If the plot sounds tortuous and inexplicable beyond reason, it is. But this isn’t a movie about terse strategy; it’s a movie about flair. Bunnell lobs from one scene to the next, with little regard to the connective tissue that ought to come between. His vision is all chic and vigour and there is only slight interest in telling a complete story or introducing viewers to characters that matter.
As such, the audience knows little about X, Bliss or the others. When Sluggo (Jed Rowen) travels beyond a Tor Johnson prototype and into a reasoned-out heavy, for instance, it’s hard to tail the progression beyond the point of sending up an Ed Wood movie. And O’Flynn, for all the fun Bratton seems to be having playing him, has similarly baffling impulses.
Many of the actors play their parts with aplomb. In particular, Reggie Bannister’s King Clayton and Heather Provost’s Lily are charming and hip. Even the extras provide a little extra fizz, like a businessman who really, really gets into his lunch when Bliss struts on by. The commitment of the performers is indisputable, even if the finished product doesn’t always deliver.
The purpose seems to be to craft a deliberately madcap cult classic, a thumbs-up to a bygone era with its soda shops, T-birds and West Side Story snaps. But even then, there’s an admission that things are waning: prior to one of the film’s best song-and-dance numbers, Chip tells Bliss that drive-in theatres are all going the way of the buffalo and the 35-cent burger.
Despite its oomph and sense of hepcat cool, one has to at least tickle the notion that The Ghastly Love of Johnny X struggles under a lack of its own ideas. Everything, save for the music, comes spliced from other places and patched together to maximize quirkiness and there’s not enough gas in the tank to push this dragster over the finish line.