“They sing! They dance! They’re juvenile delinquents from outer space!”
Paul Bunnell’s “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X” is a lovingly demented homage to 1950s sci-fi and beach-bop cinema, the kind of movie destined for a long and fruitful afterlife as a latter-day cult classic, one worthy of comparisons to the work of Ed Wood, Russ Meyer and other purveyors of venerated trash.
Locally financed and starring a cast of predominantly unknowns, “Johnny X” was the toast of this year’s Kansas International Film Festival psychobilly, where it scored the coveted Audience Award for Best Narrative and consequently earned a limited theatrical release.
The movie, gorgeously shot on what may have been the last of Kodak’s black and white film stock, opens with an intergalactic tribunal passing judgment on wild man Johnny Xavier (Will Keenan) and his gang of crooning alien greasers, known collectively as the Ghastly Ones. After much deliberation, the Grand Inquisitor (Kevin McCarthy) exiles the Ghastlies to the furthest, foulest corner of existence: a nondescript planet called Earth.
Enraged at the prospect of being grounded for eternity, Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks) splits from the gang to embark on a cross-country elopement with a love-stricken soda jerk named Chip (Les Williams), but not before hijacking Johnny’s Resurrection Suit — a mind-control device that also has the power to raise the dead.
On the run from a vengeful Johnny following a jazz-handy diner brawl worthy of “West Side Story,” Chip and Bliss take shelter in a theater owned by King Clayton (Reggie Bannister), an unctuous Hollywood concert promoter obsessed with resurrecting the career of rock ’n’ roll gargoyle Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Bratton from “The Office”), whose undead Elvis look must have taken inspiration from real-life superstar Unknown Hinson.
The pacing occasionally lags and the lead performers are amateur at best, but the fun they’re having quickly turns infectious. Brooks and Williams in particular possess a madcap brand of chemistry, one featured prominently in a duet titled “These Lips That Never Lie.” Scott Martin, the film’s composer, certainly has a gift for writing infernally catchy doo-wop numbers.
B-movie regular Jed Rowen channels the Three Stooges as Sluggo, Johnny’s clumsiest enforcer, while fans of Brian De Palma’s camp musical “Phantom of the Paradise” may recognize songwriter and Bob Balaban clone Paul Williams, who appears here as sardonic talk show host Cousin Quilty.
“The Ghastly Love of Johnny X” also features the final performance of acting legend Kevin McCarthy, who lived just long enough to complete his scenes as the Grand Inquisitor before passing away in 2010. His career, which arguably peaked with the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” back in 1956, lends special significance to his appearance as a grim, emotionless overlord.
When “Johnny X” screened at KIFF, Bunnell called the film a labor of love, a salute to the high-concept, low-budget movies that inspired him as a child. That love is evident in every frame of his bizarre, wonderful creation.