Outer-space juvenile delinquent Johnny “X” Xavier (Will Keenan) and The Ghastly Ones, his gang of teenage miscreants, have been banished from their homeworld for being too fast, too loose, too rock ‘n roll for this planet of squares. Johnny is informed by The Grand Inquisitor (Kevin McCarthy in his final performance) that his only hope of returning home is to perform “one unselfish act.” But there’s little chance of that since Johnny X has stolen an electrical “resurrection suit” that he can use to control other people’s actions. So with a final derisive act, Johnny X and friends are “sentenced to Earth.”
Fast forward a little time later and the Johnny X gang are hot on the trail of his former girlfriend, Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks). She’s grown tired of Johnny’s brand of rock ‘n roll and has stolen the suit, lambing it out to a desert diner, where she tries to persuade the soda jerk Chip (Les Williams), the squarest of squares, to help her flee her former greaser lover. At the same time, the news is all a’twitter over the mysterious disappearance of famous rocker Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Bratton). Does his manager, King Clayton (Reggie Bannister), have something to do with it? And on the eve of his latest, greatest come-back performance? And what is the connection between O’Flynn and Johnny X? Why does gang member Sluggo feel such resentment towards Johnny? Will Chip ever stand up for himself long enough to not fall down? Who owns those wonderful Ford Thunderbirds? These questions and many others will be brought up in “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X.”
Not to be cute, but the word “fun” recently received a new definition. Paul Bunnell, best known for his outstandingly bizarre short, “That Little Monster,” spent almost a decade bringing to life this homage to everything. It’s a ‘50s sci-fi musical comedy with shades of noir and classic mythology and it all comes at you fast and furiously. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact “star” of the film, even putting actors aside. The original songs by Scott Martin, particularly Bliss’ sexy number “These Lips That Never Lie” and Bratton’s “Big Green Bug-Eyed Monster,” all work as show stoppers and show movers. Francisco Bulgarelli’s crisp photography—using the very last of Kodak’s “Plus X” film Bunnell secured by scouring the Earth after the company discontinued the stock—is clean and genuine, capturing the artificial surrealism of the story.
While there are plenty of holes in the script, left there by multiple drafts, the pace and enthusiasm whips us past any gaps in logic. It’s such an audacious, ambitious experiment you can’t help but cheer it on in multiple levels. You want to see Chip earn his leather, you want to be there when Johnny makes his first (and probably final) unselfish act. Most of all, if you can’t actually be on The Cousin Quilty Show (the host played with marvelous vigor by Paul Williams, reminding you how much you’ve missed him over the years), you hope one day you can win tickets. In all seriousness, Johnny X is near-impossible to hate.
Because of all the time, love and energy spent making the movie, it’s painful to hear about some of its dubious notoriety. During its one-week, limited theatrical run in 2012, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X made history as being the lowest-grossing movie of that year, taking in less than $200. That’s tragic and should be a cry to arms for indie support. It’s nothing short of criminal that this movie isn’t playing on every remaining drive-in screen in the country.
With a DVD release in the works, Bunnell and producers (including filmmaker Ramzi Abed) have been “road-showing” Johnny X across the country, four-walling theaters whenever possible. Keep checking the film’s official site for upcoming screenings and do whatever it takes to check it out. “It represents all the things I love about the movies,” Bunnell told me in a personal interview. “It is my wish that its images will become a part of your film vocabulary.” Creatively or, especially, physically, there will never again be a low-budget, science-fiction film shot on black-and-white 35mm. That fact alone, for film lovers, trumps box office receipts.