I am not about to get up on my high horse about the intrinsic value of independent film. I like soulless, studio-driven, explosion-delivery systems as much as the next popcorn-muncher. But it’s fun to be swept along in the joy expressed by an indie filmmaker pursuing something he or she loves, financial compensation be damned.
Last week I was introduced to The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, one of the least commercial–and most joyful–films I’ve seen in some time.
It achieved notoriety by being the lowest-grossing film of 2012, though that’s a technicality. According to director Paul Bunnell, after winning an audience award at the Kansas International Film Festival–which is apparently something that exists–it received the prize of a one-week run at a single Kansas theater, where it made $117. Admittedly, there weren’t a lot of people at the midnight screening I attended, but surely we doubled that gross.
Johnny X is a pastiche of ’50s drive-in fare, specifically 1959’s Teenagers from Outer Space. But it’s more ambitious and entertaining than that low-budget junk, a semi-musical with song stylings ranging from surf guitar to rockabilly to Sondheim.
It concerns a gang of alien punks, led by the eponymous Johnny, who are “sentenced to Earth.” (The Grand Inquisitor is genre veteran Kevin McCarthy, wearing a Devo hat in his final performance.) In addition to his non-comformist ways, Johnny is being punished for his theft of the powerful Resurrection Suit. Oddly enough, he still has it when he’s sent to Earth, but it’s best not to think about that.
His on-again, off-again girlfriend is Bliss, played by De Anna Joy Brooks, who steals the show with the vamp number “These Lips That Never Lie.” She grabs the suit and runs off with a soda jerk, with the Ghastly gang in pursuit.
Reggie Bannister (from the Phantasm film series) shows up as a club promoter looking to score with a concert by legendary rocker Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Batton, formerly of the band The Grass Roots) who is, unfortunately, dead. Did I mention that there’s a Resurrection Suit?
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X could’ve used a trim: at 106 minutes, it’s a good twenty minutes longer than the movies to which it pays homage. Still, the music is catchy and the whole affair is fascinatingly weird.
In a not-entirely-dissimilar vein comes The Whisperer in Darkness, the second feature film produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Like Johnny X, it was a long-gestating project kept alive by passion. And it too is an intentionally retro flick.
In 2005, the HPLHS released The Call of Cthulhu, their adaptation of the core work of horror author Lovecraft’s mythology regarding slumbering alien gods. In a clever conceit, they filmed it as if it had been a “lost” film produced in 1926, the year that the short story was published. As a silent movie utilizing impressionistic sets and low-fi special effects, it effectively disguised its low budget and amateur crew.
For their follow-up they went bigger. The Whisperer in Darkness was published in 1931, so they intended to approach it as a sound film of the same era as the early Universal Studios horrors. And while Cthulhu was a brisk 47 minutes, Whisperer more than doubled that at 104.
In one sense, it’s less successful than its predecessor: as a 1931 pastiche, it fails. Keep in mind that ’31 was the year that the Bela Lugosi Dracula hit theaters. Dracula, for all its cultural influence, is crude and stagy, with sparse musical accompaniment provided by a couple of classical music pieces, notably “Swan Lake.” Whisperer appears considerably more polished, and features a full orchestral score of the type that wouldn’t be introduced until two years later when the original King Kong debuted.
Unlike the intentionally-jerky stop-motion animation employed for Cthulhu, the filmmakers this time opted for CGI. It’s an understandable decision, as the monsters are on-screen quite a bit and would’ve taken months to film by traditional methods. Yet, despite an attempt to “dumb down” the effects to make them appear more like stop-motion, they’re simply much smoother than would’ve been possible two years before (or really, twenty years after) Kong.
Most damning of all, it’s in widescreen. While that format existed in the early ’30s, it didn’t come into common usage until 1953, when it was seen as a way of bringing television viewers back to the theaters.
Aside from the opening titles, the entire film looks much more like something that would’ve emerged from the sci-fi boom of the ’50s. And honestly, that’s okay. The HPLHS might not have achieved their stated goal, but they made something that’s as good as some of the better genre flicks of the mid-20th Century.
Matt Foyer is appealing as the central character Albert Wilmarth, who travels to rural Vermont to investigate a farmer who believes that he has been beset by buzzing aliens emanating from a nearby mountain lair. The stories of the Mi-Go are just folklore, right? Right?
Whisperer incurs the potential wrath of Lovecraftians by extending the film past the end of the short story. The original tale concludes with a twist that would normally ring down the curtain on Act Two. Instead, there’s an action-packed third act which sees Wilmarth infiltrate the Mi-Go caves and attempt to escape their wrath in an old plane. Ultimately, it goes to a place no less bleak than Lovecraft’s own writings.
The only real downside to it is a mustache-twirling human villain who wears a cultist get-up that charitably can be called “unfortunate.”
Still, grouses about the authenticity of its alleged time period aside, it’s still a fine film straddling the line between fan effort and something more professional. I hope that the HPLHS will tackle The Shadow Over Innsmouth next!