There aren't a lot of films these days that do retro right. With a few exceptions (like Ti West's excellent House of the Devil) the tone is off, or the look and feel. Something is missing. Paul Bunnell delivers a pitch perfect homage to fifties sci-fi films, however, along with some song and dance numbers and a few buckets of weirdness. His masterpiece is the lushly black and white The Ghastly Love of Johnny X.
The eponymous Johnny (Will Keenan) is an alien with an attitude problem. He and his group of pals have been exiled to earth for insubordination and disrespect for the authorities of their rule bound world (led by Grand Inquisitor Kevin McCarthy in a fun cameo role), taking the powerful resurrection suit (which can control people at a distance) with them. They fit right in to 1950's greaser culture, forming their own gang, The Ghastly Ones. But then, Johnny's girlfriend Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks) decides she's had enough of Johnny's controlling ways, and wants out.
Bliss hides out in a diner, and puts herself (sort of) under the protection of shy and awkward soda jerk Chip (Les Williams). While Bliss and Chip flee from the gang, sketchy club owner King Clayton (Reggie Bannister) and his girlfriend Lily (Heather Provost) try to convince Johnny to use the resurrection suit (which they've seen in action) to help them out of a jam. They're trying to revive the career of rock and roll star Mickey O'Flynn (Creed Bratton), but he has inconveniently died mere days before his comeback performance.
And this is the least of the craziness. Amidst it all are actual resurrection of a corpse, dead lizards, teleological philosophy, betrayal, true love, and most of all incredibly well staged musical numbers. The songs (mostly written by Scott Martin, though Ego Plum is the composer of the film score) are original, fun, and fit very well into the time period represented. The singing and dancing is certainly odd, Bunnell says in the commentary that the film was not originally intended to feature music, but they fit seamlessly into the narrative, and add a lot of charm to the proceedings.
And charm is what The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is loaded with, and ultimately what makes the film successful. The plot is sort of thin and implausible, but in a way that honors and hearkens back to the implausible science fiction films of yesteryear. The antagonist feels a bit haphazardly thrown together. The effects are cheesy at times, but endearingly so. And that's really it. The flaws themselves are endearing. The process shots of the characters driving are obviously fake, but evoke a savory nostalgia. It's fake in a sweet and wonderful way. An undertone of sweetness pervades everything, even though at times Johnny's actions are a little less than noble, and his eventual turn to righteousness is never fully thought out. It helps that the film looks amazing. The black and white photography is sumptuous and clear, not at all looking like a fakey modern approximation, but like an actual fifties film perfectly preserved. The wide open vistas, classic cars and beautiful women are presented with joy and style. Johnny X manages the difficult feat of being sexy without descending into vulgarity.
In short, if you like your films linear, realistic and grounded (and more importantly, if you don't have love in your heart for the silly fifties sci-fi films to which Johnny X is an homage), you aren't going to like this movie. But if you have a sense of fun, and have fond memories of staying up late on Saturday night to watch a bit of goofiness on TV, then The Ghastly Love of Johnny X will hit exactly the right spot. Highly recommended.
Featurette - "Paul Bunnell's Ghastly Vision"
Commentary Track with Director Paul Bunnell, Composer Ego Plum and De Anna Joy Brooks