Teenage angst is seemingly inevitable. At its worst, it spawns bad poetry, poor mental health, and violence, and at its best, good music and weird hair. In the case of Johnny Grissom, it yields decidedly macabre results. Johnny Gruesome (based on a slight mispronunciation of the titular character’s name, “Grissom”), gives new life (pun intended) to the 50s juvenile delinquent picture, incorporating aspects of the all but extinct genre into a suburban tale of the living dead.
Thoughtful moments of dread are mingled with the indignities of high school, adolescent rebellion, young love, and the erosion of childhood friendships, creating a substratum of aching relatability à la Ginger Snaps (2000). There is, of course, enough requisite gore, sex, drugs, and rock n roll to scratch most horror hounds’ itchiest problem areas—more than fulfilling the film’s promise of the “gruesome”—but the flesh on the bones of this updated EC comics parable is strangely sweet and nostalgic.
In director Greg Lamberson’s adaptation of his own 2007 novel of the same name, Johnny Grissom is a long-haired teenage rebel with a bad reputation. Johnny’s souped-up, flame emblazoned mustang and refusal to take any shit have earned him the unwanted nickname “Johnny Gruesome.” He and his friends, Eric, a soft-spoken, straight-laced childhood buddy, Gary, a dopey drug dealer, and Karen, his gum chomping girlfriend, form a motley crew of outsiders at their small town high school. The film’s action begins with a taunting preppie provoking Johnny with the triggering appellate “Gruesome.”
“…Johnny pushes the pedal to the metal…taking a suicidal death trip with his friends in tow…”
After laying a solid beatdown on the smug offender in the school’s parking lot, Johnny is slapped with a weeklong suspension. Later that night, after a confrontation with his alcoholic father and with the specter of potential expulsion on the horizon, Johnny and his crew take a drunken joyride. As Gary inhales harder drugs in the backseat, Johnny pushes the pedal to the metal, presumably intent on taking a suicidal death trip with his friends in tow. Karen, Eric, and Gary plead with Johnny to stop as the speeding car careens toward a bridge. The car comes to a screeching halt moments before the imminent crash, and in the heat of the moment, Gary strangles Johnny to death.
Eric, Karen, and Gary surround Johnny’s prone, lifeless body as the reality of the situation begins to set in, and Gary insists the teens conceal the murder to avoid the inevitable dire consequences. Karen is convinced, and Eric, reluctantly, agrees. As the trio conspire to cover up Johnny’s death, however, the boy’s angry spirit hovers around the scene, and, is, understandably pretty pissed about what he’s seeing. He vows to get his revenge.
The news of Johnny’s “accidental” death hits the school as Karen, Eric, and Gary attempt to innocently slip back into their daily lives. Meanwhile, through pure undead willpower, Johnny escapes his coffin and makes his way home. Slowly but surely, those who offended Johnny in life begin to turn up dead and mutilated. Karen, guilt-ridden and detached, slips deep into drug use under the influence of Gary, who continues to go to great lengths to conceal his involvement in Johnny’s death—when a severed head appears in his locker, he ditches it in a drainage pipe (now that’s using your head).
Eric begins to pull away from Gary as his motivations and intentions regarding Karen become more obvious. After seeing a figure in Johnny’s bedroom window, Eric becomes convinced his dead friend is responsible for the string of mysterious murders. As terror engulfs the town, Eric, with the help of a local teacher, sets out to prove the dead boy is not in his grave, leading to a confrontation with the malevolent teenage creature.
“…an intimate, ironically, human story of teenage rage, betrayal, and growing up in small town America…”
Johnny Gruesome tells an intimate, ironically, human story of teenage rage, betrayal, and growing up in small town America, where personal bonds run deep even behind drawn blinds. The locations convey the cloistered, melancholy of small-town life perfectly, and the film uses this to its great advantage. Although the film’s settings and production design evoke a made for Disney Channel original film lensed in Canada, this only helps to reinforce its youthful conceit.
At its best though, Johnny Gruesome resembles Stephen King at his most folksy and wistful (think Pet Sematary and The Dead Zone). The soundtrack provides some pop-punky earworms that linger after the credits roll, and as tender as the film can be (particularly Anthony De La Torre and Byron Brown II’s performances), it still succeeds at maintaining its rock n roll, splatterpunk attitude.
Lamberson’s film moves gracefully within its budgetary constraints (nice use of drones bro) and even moments of schlocky digital fx come off more charming than chuckle-inducing. Lamberson’s cult classic, Slime City (1988), offered similarly surprising, character-driven horror, and his latest continues in this unique mode. Strong performances (Anthony de la Torre, Kim Piazza, and, a familiar face, Michael DeLorenzo) mingled with a few weaker ones, but this rocky bit of road evens out as the film tightens its grip with real suspense and a web of fleshy, nuanced relationships. Buoyed by a tight script and appropriately modest scope, this fun little gem would make Corman at his most economical, and emotionally ambitious, proud. The balancing act Lamberson’s film achieves between adolescent drama and ghastly horror is truly something special–equal parts J.D. Salinger and Tales From the Crypt. In short, think “The Creature in the Rye”.
Johnny Gruesome (2018) Written and Directed by Greg Lamberson. Starring Anthony De La Torre, Byron Brown II, Aprilann, Michael DeLorenzo, Chris Modrzynski, Kim Piazza, Richard Lounello, and Madison Amey
8 out of 10 stars