Cinema, in its finest 35mm form, leaves a distinct taste, the kind you can’t easily forget, let alone easily recreate. It is reminiscent of a bygone movie experience where audiences would file into a small independent theater for a midnight screening of some strange and otherworldly thing. Film today might be dominated by industrial megaplexes, but the memory of that experience sustains, along with hope that this kind of film and filmmaking will persist. That is where The Ghastly Love of Johnny X arrives, a film dedicated to these older genre pictures and to the art of black and white cinema. Both the film’s subject and literal form deal with resurrection, as they invigorate bygone personas and techniques instead of treating them as dead or irrelevant. It revisits common locations, characters, and dialogue from this older style and brings them to a modern perspective. In doing so, it takes what society has deemed dead back to life for one final curtain call, thus giving it a more noble and deserving end.
You may not have heard of The Ghastly Love of Johnny X before; it is relatively unknown and had very little critical reception. In the words of its director and creator Paul Bunnell, the film is an “intergalactic dark horror sci-fy musical cacophony” (CBS), which if you have been paying attention to this blog, are all my favourite things. Johnny X blends multiples genres to create an utterly unique picture filled with familiar tropes, personas, and elements but in new shapes. It is about a group of delinquent aliens banished to earth for their rebellious behaviour. Johnny, their leader, steals a resurrection suit from their home planet, and this allows him to control the bodies of people around him. With this suit, he and his gang roam 50’s America, inflicting havoc and being general nuisances.
“I Sentence You to Earth”
A Quick Summary (Spoilers Ahead)
We begin the film at a 50’s diner, where a strange femme fatale named Bliss enters looking for a drink and a way out. She enlists the help of a soda jerk named Chip to escape from her ex, Johnny, and his gang. When the gang catches up with Bliss at the diner, its revealed that Bliss has stolen Johnny’s resurrection suit. After some struggle, Chip and Bliss escape and drive to a deserted drive-in cinema to come up with a plan. Meanwhile, Johnny and his group are approached by a sleazy manager called King Clayton, and his girlfriend, who claim they know how to find Chip and that they have something Johnny has been looking for. They have the corpse of Mickey O’Flynn, a famed rock musician and Johnny’s hero. O’Flynn is the very reason Johnny took on a juvenile delinquent persona once he arrived on earth. Johnny never got the chance to thank O’Flynn, as he went missing right before he was supposed to perform his comeback show. The manager asks Johnny to possess O’Flynn with the resurrection device so he can complete this final show. The manager, who turns out to be Chip’s uncle, helps Johnny catch Chip and Bliss, and true to his word, Johnny controls the O’Flynn for a very strange performance. However, Johnny is betrayed by one of his neglected gang members, and the device goes haywire, electrocuting Johnny and bringing a slightly decomposed O’Flynn back to life. Chaos descends, and eventually Johnny, Chip, and the Ghastly Gang must rescue O’Flynn and Bliss from the disgruntled ex-gang member. By saving O’Flynn and having the chance to thank him and say goodbye, Johnny performs a selfless act, and he and the gang are welcomed back to their home planet. The film ends as Johnny’s crew returns home, Bliss and Johnny decide to stay on earth, and the manager, his girlfriend turned fiancé, and Chip drive into the night.
I came across the film rather abruptly after my post on Phantom of the Paradise and a few other horror musicals. Bunnell reached out to ask if I would be interested in watching his film, which parallels many of the musicals I was already discussing. I had never heard of Johnny X, but I am certainly glad I had the opportunity to watch such a fantastic and criminally unrenowned film. It is the same vein as films like Bang Bang Baby (2014) and Cry Baby (1990), both of which are rather bizarre musicals about juvenile delinquents, but it also raises the stakes and content of this subject. It evokes the same kind of associations as these films, but it gives them more weight. For instance, take the line “Just save the universe with me, and I guarantee, you’ll be compensated by these lips that never lie”. Bliss sings this to Chip during their rendezvous at the drive-in, and its typical femme fatale language, embodying hyper aware and dangerous sexuality. But at the same time, she’s talking about saving the universe, a monumental thing which is entirely beyond a soda jerk like Chip. And so, the line mixes this femme persona with apocalypse terminology, which intensifies the film’s greaser connotations and makes them so much more important.
“Save the Drama for Your Mama”
Johnny X is not simply about genre cinema, its relationship with classic movies is far more intrinsic than that. The film was shot using 35mm and done entirely in black and white, which according to the director, is “the finest grain” (NBC). This material is also known as Plus X, like Johnny X, which is just one of the similarities between the film content and form. Production ran into a few issues, and at one point, they had to go on hiatus for years. During that time, Plus X film was discontinued by Kodak, and so the director had to track down bits of film reel so he could finish the project. This means that Johnny X is almost Frankenstein-like, a collection of discarded parts assembled and brought to life. This lends to the film’s ongoing discussion on resurrection and illustrates that the film is littered with ‘so-called’ dead material. The title sequence even suggests as much, noting that Johnny X was shot with “GhostlyScope” rather than “CinemaScope”. Here, form and content collide, as the film suggests that “CinemaScope” has transformed into something new and ghostly.
There are a lot of X’s in Johnny X, which we can read a few different ways. Traditionally speaking, X can be a dangerous chemical. Or it could refer to being cut out or stopped, which certainly relates to Johnny. He is banished at the beginning of the film, and he is Bliss’ ex-boyfriend. He is also banished by society, always on the outskirts. But X could also relate to X-rating, which is one step further than an R-rating. X-rated films have a certain reputation, as although they are scandalous and often difficult to watch, they have a prestige about them. The best way I can explain it is by referring to Divine in Pink Flamingos (1972), who wanted to be the filthiest person alive, and earns that title by eating dog shit. Being the most tasteless or X-rated means something, and it is very similar to the juvenile delinquent persona, of causing the most damage and being the worst. So, perhaps the X in Johnny’s name refers to that reputation of being too outlandish for normative society. But, that said, I like the connection between Plus X and Johnny X, as it implies that Johnny and the film face the same issues. The film made almost no money, but it came from a place of sincere admiration, and has likewise been treated with such admiration. It might have only made $117 at the box office, but its IMDb page is filled with positive reviews from passionate fans. Speaking personally, I love the film because its not really about a bygone era, its about a resurrected era and doing something new with something which had been cast aside. It is not a comeback, it is a renovation, which also happens to the characters in the film.
“What We Are You Made Us”
I have referred to the juvenile delinquent persona a few times, so without feeling too much like a square, I think I should define what that means in cinema. Johnny X refers to this type of character multiple times, and the manager even refers to Johnny’s group as “those juvenile delinquents from Outer Space”. This terminology comes from a long filmic tradition. Juvenile delinquents aren’t concerned with serious crimes, they mainly do petty misdemeanors like robbing, road rage, profanity, and occasional murder (if called for). At least that is what happens in film, which often uses this persona as the quintessential bad boy love interest, like in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Johnny models himself from these broody and dangerous figures by performing “low crimes” and “flaunting disrespect”. Much like the traditional rebel, Johnny is proud of this title, and tries to be undisciplined and tasteless throughout his time on earth. We don’t see a lot of this destruction in the film, but Bliss mentions that Johnny had gone too far, and that is why she stole his suit.
It is left unclear how much of Johnny’s lifestyle was influenced by earth, as it certainly influenced his wardrobe and slang. One thing that is clear is that Johnny adopted the term “Ghastly” to further his persona. The word “Ghastly” is in the title of the film and it’s on Johnny’s license plate, as though he is driven by the word. But what does the word mean? Bliss mentions it briefly near the beginning of the film after Chip asks her what Johnny is after. Her eyes sort of daze off and the camera zooms in dramatically as she replies, “the ghastly love of Johnny X”. So, what is the ghastly love? Seeing as “Ghastly” is just another word which relates to rebellion and tastelessness, I think “ghastly love” means freedom and possibility, a second chance, but not for the greater good.
“Strange Running into You Here”
While Johnny uses a specific persona, so does the film. It is easy to recognize some of the characters and narrative beats used in Johnny X, although they are now in a new and intergalactic context. The sound effects, costumes, designs, they are all familiar, and purposefully so. The presence of these familiar features amplifies and even declares that Johnny X comes from a line of films. It is sort of the progeny of works like Rebel Without a Cause. As an example, we get these old-fashioned sound effects like lasers and kisses, and they are almost cartoon-like. There is also the film’s soundtrack, which is very 50’s retro and boppy. These moments are very exaggerated, like when Bliss slaps Johnny and Bobbi at the same time, and then Bobbi punches Bliss and King Clayton at the same time. This extreme quality is necessary as it is essentially the same as Johnny imitating O’Flynn. The film is imitating older films and it’s not trying to hide that relationship.
Another example is when Johnny and Bliss see one another at the diner. We get this completely black shot of the two of them as little specks of glitter fall around. This extreme shot comes out of nowhere, but it informs the audience that these two are in love, and a very extreme kind of love too.
The film even goes so far as to directly quote other famous films, both literally and through casting. Johnny cries out “You’re tearing me apart” during one of the numbers, which was famously shouted by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Johnny reenacts this famous moment, but he is also resurrecting it, inserting it into a new environment and a hyper aware context. In fact, reenactment and resurrection are not that dissimilar, but more on that later.
This referential style is also found in the film’s cast, particularly Paul Williams. Williams plays a late-night television host named Uncle Quilty, who interview famous actors and musicians. He is sort of responsible for the success of figures like O’Flynn, as O’Flynn might be the performer, but Uncle Quilty controls the TV. This is rather funny as it relates to the main reason Williams is in the film. Williams is widely recognized by all cult audiences as the creator and musician behind Phantom of the Paradise (1974), arguably the greatest horror musical out there. His inclusion in Johnny X, another cult musical, sends a very clear message. So does the presence of Kevin McCarthy as the Grand Inquisitor, who is best known for his role in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The appearance of these actors tells us that the film knows what it is doing, and what kinds of films it comes from. It also demonstrates that Johnny X knows that its target audience are already informed about these kinds of films, and will recognize the importance of these actors while also combining these earlier characters onto characters in Johnny X. Uncle Quilty is a sort of media figurehead, controlling what people see and how. One might say that he is also a figurehead in the cult musical fandom for Phantom. And so, his role in Johnny X mirrors his real-life position.
“Gosh, I Used to See Double Features Here…Almost All These Babies Are Gone”
The film additionally uses specific locations to resonate with its informed audience, like the drive-in theater. The drive-in was home to these delinquent kinds of films, they were perfect date night movies. It’s appearance in the film tells us that Johnny X was made by people who love these kinds of cinematic spaces, and that it was made for people who think similarly.
I would argue that this approach to style and reference relates to Johnny’s device, the suit which can control those who are particularly receptive. Bliss explains that the resurrection device targets those who are wired to receive the same frequencies as Johnny’s brain waves. She has actual wiring in her chest which facilitates this connection. The film uses a similar method as it reaches out to this informed audience, those who are on the same frequency as the filmmaker. The intended audience is already wired to older films like Phantom of the Paradise and Rebel Without a Cause, and so, they are already set up to receive these kinds of signals. Just being able to recognize these references and styles means you are already thinking the same way as the film.
“Undisciplined, Irreverent, Tasteless!”
Johnny X balances retro with resurrection as it never looks back with nostalgia, it simply reinvigorates these old bodies and subjects. It sets up this relationship between old and new, fathers and sons, as Johnny tries to imitate O’Flynn while also rebelling against institutions. There is a fine line between imitation and homage, and it’s one Johnny contends with throughout the film. To imitate implies that you are lesser than what you imitate, that you are just a copy of a more significant work. But, to pay homage suggests that you are consciously evoking a work, which puts you into comparison with that work and implies that you are equally relevant. It is the same dilemma faced by films like Johnny X, that question of originality versus reference. Johnny mirrors the film, which means that we can read the film’s consensus through Johnny’s.
There are several scenes which focus on this new versus old dynamic, particularly the one where Johnny confronts O’Flynn’s corpse. Faced with this crippled God, Johnny notes “Strange running into you here. I’ve been chasing you across galaxies”, which implies that Johnny and O’Flynn are connected in some intricate way which O’Flynn is not even conscious of. Johnny goes on, stating, “Always just shy of being able to measure up to your rep”, suggesting that Johnny is afraid of being a bad knock off. He is uncertain about this homage versus imitation thing that he has involved O’Flynn with. There is an equal amount of love and anger towards O’Flynn, or as Johnny describes, “I don’t know whether to hug you or punch your lights out man”. The fact that Johnny first saw O’Flynn on TV, albeit on a spaceship, mimics the way these rock icons found their audience, and how they would put on a performance and only show the good parts about being a rebel. Just as Johnny embodies the delinquent movement that the film is interested in, O’Flynn embodies that older movement, which explains why Johnny thinks of him as a father.
Johnny is dissatisfied with the sudden way O’Flynn dies, as it makes what he represented seem somewhat small and insignificant. He decides to resurrect O’Flynn just as the film resurrects these older genres and aesthetics and gives them a proper farewell. Take the film’s 35mm form. It had to be scavenged to properly finish the film and retain its old school technique. Johnny essentially does the same thing with O’Flynn by trying to imitate him during the performance, sort of redistributing the moves he once saw on TV. The film thus connects death and music, which is made even more apparent when the manager is described as an undertaker by his girlfriend. This comment collapses death with rock and suggests that they are two types of the same work.
There is a kind of worship underlying the relationship between O’Flynn’s era and Johnny’s, but it is a fraught kind. Johnny uses O’Flynn as a source, a guide. Without him, he doesn’t know what to do or how to act. Johnny isn’t the only one looking for a second life, one independent from another person. King Clayton wants O’Flynn to perform so he can make money and not be in debt. Bliss tries to start a ‘proper’ relationship with Chip, although it doesn’t go the way she planned,. Even Sluggo wants a second chance, a way to be his own man and not just one of Johnny’s crones. This all implies that the ‘ghastly love’ referenced so often in the film is to be successful, or as King Clayton suggests, “We are going to pull this thing together, the two of us, and then we will both be back on top”. To be ‘on top’ is to have the freedom to live without restrictions, to get a second more uninhibited life.
“Johnny Was Trying to Imitate His Old Man”
Then comes an interesting twist in the film. As O’Flynn dies (for good this time), he accepts Johnny as his son and tells him, “You’ve got a good heart, I want you to follow it” rather than following me. From this moment, the film begins to distance itself from the familiar formula and genre it was previously using. Johnny gets to forge a new path which doesn’t hinge on what O’Flynn would or would not have done. I think the best demonstration of this is that Johnny isn’t the one to defeat Sluggo, Bobbi is. She stabs Sluggo and sacrifices herself to save the earth. She moves beyond the jealous girlfriend mode previously shown in the film. As a result, we don’t get a massive showdown between Johnny and Sluggo, as one might anticipate, given how these kinds of films generally end. That freedom, or the movement away from this anticipated formula, is something the characters have referred to throughout the film, but also what they have never obtained. They often refer to this freedom and second chance while talking about the stars, as both Bliss and O’Flynn suggest that stars represent infinite possibility, the kind which the film is now capable of pursuing.
That said, Johnny retains his tasteless persona at the end of the film, just in his own way. The first time we hear the term ‘tasteless’ is when the Grand Inquisitor asks Johnny if he would really want to become as tasteless as someone like O’Flynn. The second time, however, Queen Betty (the ruler of Johnny’s home planet) uses it to describe Johnny just as he and Bliss drive away and refuse any redemption. The implication is that Johnny has officially inherited O’Flynn’s tasteless title and that he is now independent from O’Flynn. He is his own person and does not need to be compared with O’Flynn to be tasteless. As such, the film continues to embrace its tasteless attitude to the very end, especially as its final line, spoken by Johnny, is “I still am the Ghastly one!”. Johnny might be the only Ghastly one left, but given how popular and trailblazing his predecessor was, it won’t be long until there are more.
“I Still Am the Ghastly One!”
Being tasteless is also important for the film, as it tells the audience that, much like Johnny, it is an independent film worth fighting for. It harkens back to these older films and actors but doesn’t just repeat them. It reinvigorates this material and makes it its own, which is something worth celebrating. It deserves recognition as a skilled and heartfelt monument to film, but one which never buries these older kinds of cinema. By giving up the resurrection suit at the end of the film, Johnny demonstrates that we are ready to move beyond imitating these earlier pioneers, while still respecting what they did. We too, as cinema goers and makers, are ready to drive away into the night, uncertain of where we are going, but determined to have fun along the way.
“CBS Sunday Morning ‘Only in The Movies’ Bill Geist.” CBS News, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQ8Q3Z5loaA&feature=youtu.be
“NBC Nightly News: Black and White Film, ‘The Most Beautiful Format.’” NBC News, 2012.