COMMENTS: In 1985’s “Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” Nick Zedd demanded that “boring films never be made again.” Even taking into account the context of this broadside (which was explicitly aimed at structuralist filmmakers like Hollis Frampton who dominated the film school curricula of the time), this was an incredibly arrogant claim that was doomed to come back and bite him when audiences noticed that—surprise!—the films made by Nick Zedd and the Cinema of Transgression were frequently boring. “Any film that doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at,” continues the Manifesto, and despite the dubious nature of that claim, Zedd’s films usually do succeed on that front (although occasionally, they only shock due to how boring they are—“Lydia Lunch,” I’m looking your way).
At any rate, note that the statement “any film that doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at” doesn’t imply the converse: that any film that does shock automatically is worth looking at. Like most experimental filmmakers, Zedd’s work is a mixed bag, with a few successes shining out from amidst a sea of crud. The now out-of-print “Abnormal” disc collects most of his important short films made between 1980 to 2001, along with an excerpt from the (brilliantly titled) feature length movie War Is Menstrual Envy and some interviews and behind-the-scenes tidbits. Here’s the rundown of the films, approximately in reverse-chronological order (as they are presented on the disc):
“Tom Thumb in the Land of the Giants” (1999): This show-on-video short is presented as a trailer. It’s not clear whether this is a pitch for a longer movie that never got made, or whether this was the concept all along. Zedd’s son Kajtek is pursued by a “phantom” through a graveyard in broad daylight; it ends with a shot of a one-armed man and the boy escaping (though the magic of trick photography) into a giant vagina! At only 4 minutes long there is still some dead space, but it is about the optimum length for a Zedd film.
“Ecstasy in Entropy” (1999): A (mostly) silent black-and-white film set in a strip club/bordello. Retired-porn-star-cum-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle appears. There’s fellatio and fake ejaculation, and at one point the strippers laud the virtues of anarcho-socialism in voiceover. It briefly switches to color for the last few minutes for a catfight. Not as interesting as it sounds.
“Why Do You Exist?” (1998): A woman smears spray-cheese and whipped cream on her ample bosom, then we see a parade of video portraits of performance artists and grimy underground personalities mugging for the camera. Once you get past the boobies it’s fairly dull, unless you’re one of the out-of-work actors profiled here.
War is Menstrual Envy (1992): This 14-minute clip is the meatiest and most nightmarish segment of the collection. A topless woman painted blue and dressed like a nun (Kembra Pfahler) unwraps a disfigured burn victim, then dresses him like a sheik; another woman (Annie Sprinkle) enters, undresses him again, and licks his scarred chest. Then opening credits run over footage of eye surgery. The grotesque beauty on display here is Zedd’s finest work, but 14 minutes was enough; another hour of this stuff would be nauseating Continue reading CAPSULE: ABNORMAL: THE SINEMA OF NICK ZEDD (2001)→
PLOT: Alien juvenile delinquents are exiled to earth, where they scheme to control a “resurrection suit” that can bring a recently deceased rock and roll star back from the dead.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pitched as a juvenile delinquent rock n’ roll sci-fi musical, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is, as the tagline claims, “a truly mad concoction.” In fact, if anything it tries a little too hard to live up to that billing. Better jokes and musical numbers might have put it over the top, but as it is this deliberate, overproduced camp doesn’t have the stuff to make it on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.
COMMENTS: The Ghastly Love of Johnny X sports so many cool hepcat influences—it’s like a mashup of Rocky Horror Picture Show, Teenagers from Outer Space and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, full of space-age rumbles, rock and roll zombies, and soda jerks taking teenage femme fatales out to the drive-in—that you really pull for it to work. Unfortunately, the flat musical numbers and lame attempts at comedy ultimately lead to nowheresville, man, but you can still catch a few campy kicks on the way. Musicals are a difficult genre to tackle, especially for a first second time feature director, and especially nowadays when the average actor doesn’t double as a song and dance man. Although there are no hummable hits, Ego Plum’s score isn’t bad—it’s just that the choreography and general staging of the sparse musical numbers fails to impress. For example, the first big song, set in a hash-house trailer that turns into an abstract set when the music begins, is almost purely character exposition, setting up Johnny’s gang as a bunch of hooligans, Mr. X as a brooding James Dean type, and his slinky ex-girlfriend as a scorned woman. The session flips back and forth between musical styles, tries to shoehorn in exposition, and forgets to be tuneful. (The incidental music, which is sometimes Morricone-esque with its wordless female vocals, surf guitars and rattlesnake percussion, can be quite impressive, on the other hand). The black and white Barstow set photography is crisp and beautiful (more on that below), and when Johnny X poses with arcs of electricity shooting from his magic gloves it looks flat-out cool—visually, Ghastly Love does hit the right notes. Casting is pleasingly eccentric. Will Keenan is still playing a teenager six years after Tromeo and Juliet—because the film took six years to complete due to financing issues. He isn’t bad, but as the female lead, but previously unknown De Anna Joy Brooks is a pleasant surprise. She’s a little old for her role, but then again there is that six year filming gap, and her character is supposed to be sexually advanced. She’s slinky, breathy, and looks good in a tight black dress, and you can see why a guy would overlook the scent of danger rising off this dame like a fogbank of Chanel No. 5 and try to play her knight in shining armor. Looking like Dick Cavett would if a wicked witch turned him into a bespectacled, withered gnome with a bad goatee—and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible—Paul Williams has fun playing a very strange, sarcastic and kinky talk show host named “Cousin Quilty.” The big casting coup is “The Office”‘s Creed Bratton as a Roy Orbison lookalike rock and roll superstar. Wearing a long black wig in a silly attempt to hide his age, he’s an absurd choice for a teen sex symbol, and to top off the casting joke he spends most of the movie dead. With closets housing flashbacks, zombie rock concerts, and alien bubble-heads popping out of UFOs, Ghastly Love does have a weirdness beyond its genre-mashing premise. Ghastly Love may not be quite the bee’s knees, but it is light and zippy, and if you’re in the mood for a retro juvenile delinquency flick with aliens and Sharks vs. Jets-style musical numbers, you don’t have many choices besides this.
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X probably won’t be remembered for long, but it will be the answer to very obscure trivia questions in the future, because it marks one least and a couple of lasts. For the “least,” some snarky mainstream journalists have picked up on the fact that it only made a ghastly $117 in its one-screen run (opening in Kansas, no less), making it technically the lowest-grossing theatrical release of 2013. As far as “lasts” go, Ghastly features the last on-screen appearance of Kevin (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) McCarthy. This was also the final movie shot on Kodak’s venerable black-and-white Plus-X film stock, which has been discontinued in the digital filmmaking age.
NOTE: After the original review was published, director Paul Bunnel sent these additional comments, which are reprinted with his permission:
JOHNNY X was a real labor of love for me. It was in production for 10 years. I shot some B-roll footage in 2002 and continued to refine the script for another year until I felt it was ready to shoot. In 2004 my wife and I borrowed against our house to begin principal photography (we’re still paying that second mortgage today). I initially thought we could complete the movie for the amount we borrowed, but ran out of money after only 10 days of filming. This created a major dilemma. We had invested over $100K in a partially completed movie. I knocked on every door in Hollywood (and out of Hollywood) to try and get financing, but no luck. The clock was ticking! After a few years the situation became dire. I began to wonder if I would ever find the money to finish the movie, and if I did, would the actors all be available and would they still look the same??? Another few years passed during which I never gave up on my crazy dream of finishing the movie. Pretty much everyone, including the actors, wrote it off. Friends suggested I make a short film from the existing footage or finish it on digital to save money, but I wasn’t about to compromise the high standards I had set for the project. Amazingly, after SIX years (and five nervous breakdowns) — when I was about to throw in the towel — a friend of mine said he would give me the money to finish the movie. It was that simple.
During the six year “hiatus” there were some script changes, which caused me to be locked into certain things while attempting to change (hopefully for the better) other things. Musical numbers were also added during the hiatus to make portions of the script I thought were weak more interesting. If JOHNNY X would have been completed in 2004 it would have been an entirely different movie. But for whatever reason it wasn’t meant to be finished until 2010 with yet another year to do post production (music, visual effects and sound). I wasn’t entirely happy with the film when it was all put together, but I made the best of it.
The only other things I would like to add is that I never set out to make a cult movie, I set out to make a GOOD movie — and that I began making movies way back in 1974 at the age of eleven. It has always been something I have done since that young age. Amazingly I have always shot on film — all 23 of my movies (mostly shorts) but JOHNNY X was the first one shot on 35mm Panavision (aka GhastlyScope). Given its history I like to call it the Citizen Kane of B-Movies.
I appreciate anyone who takes the time to thoroughly review the film. It’s better to have folks talking about it than not. I thought your review was intelligent and well-written. Of course I would have preferred the review to be more favorable, not to make ME look better, but because I really want to make a movie that people like.
At the end of the day it was an amazing experience to see my dream through to completion – and if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
PLOT: Alcoholic Monty Que and unscrupulous Cappy Capulet have a long running feud dating back to their days as partners in a low-budget sleaze movie studio, and they have passed on their personal vendettas to the next generation. Monty’s son, Tromeo, falls in love with Cappy’s daughter, Juliet. The two young lovers must overcome the bloody gangland antics of their friends and family, Juliet’s upcoming arranged marriage to a self-mutilating meat-packing heir, and Cappy’s tendency to beat Juliet and lock her in a plexiglass box, among other crossed stars.
Original drafts of the script had the parts played by costumed characters from other Troma studio releases: The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, and so on.
Much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue was included in the rough cut, but most was removed after negative audience reaction.
Rock n’ roll cult figure Lemmy (of the band Motörhead) played the role of the narrator for free, and also donated the song “Sacrifice” to the soundtrack. Several less famous bands also donated songs for free or for a nominal price.
Shakespearean actor William Beckwith played the role of Cappy Capulet under the pseudonym “Maximillian Shaun” because he was a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and Tromeo and Juliet was a non-union film.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Many of the more memorable images in Tromeo and Juliet are too obscene to be depicted in stills. The best sequence is when Juliet’s belly unexpectedly and rapidly distends and splits open to give birth to… a surprise.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Redoing a classic Shakespearean tragedy as a low-budget, offensive farce is a promisingly weird, if obviously gimmicky, premise. Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team were inspired by the concept, however, and put more creativity into the project than they did in their usual formula schlock fare. The typical Troma anarchy and bad taste reign again here, but the producers add a healthy dollop of bargain-basement surrealism (Juliet’s disturbing sex dreams) and some on-the-cheap arthouse effects (the lovemaking scene in a plexiglass box against a starry backdrop). The result is a movie that’s completely unpredictable, despite a plot known to every high schooler. Tromeo is revolting one moment, and oddly sweet and beautiful the next, an incongruity that only adds to the weird atmosphere.