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In 2012, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X grossed $117 during its one week theatrical run, making it the lowest grossing movie of that year. Nearly five years later it played in a one-room theater in a suburb of Akron, Ohio where I saw it for the first time.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about the film other than what I got from the trailer. It played the week before in the same theater preceding a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I thought that the trailer looked cool, and I recognized Creed Bratton (who plays Creed Bratton in The Office), so I decided to see the film the following week.
The film is a black and white sci-fi musical. It sounds bizarre, but it works in a weird way. It’s a love letter to old sci-fi films, and it uses a 50’s aesthetic to give it some flavor.
The biggest thing that stuck with me from the film is that it’s truly art. I don’t think many people can actually pull off black and white (whether that be in photography or film), but Paul Bunnell (director, writer, and producer) clearly thought about his visuals throughout the film. The film has an extremely strong grasp on light and dark contrasts. This leads to many pretty images throughout the film, and it makes the scenery visually interesting. While the diner or club or desert may have been muted in color, Bunnell brings out the beauty of these places by contrasting the lightness of the background with darkness in the foreground.
Even beyond the visual aspects of the film, everything is tightly constructed and considered. The film manages to be an homage to the genre without ever veering too far into camp or employing a dues ex machina to help the characters escape from a situation. The rules of this quirky and compelling universe are all laid out clearly at the beginning of the film.
Throughout Johnny X, the characters manage to draw the line between camp and genuine emotion. The characters are playing genre tropes, to be sure, but they are also fleshed out. Each character has motivations but also wants and dreams. The genuine nature of the characters plays a big role in selling this film.
If anything, movie-lovers should seek this film out because of its place in cinematic history. This is the final film appearance of Kevin McCarthy, star of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. It is also the last film to be made with Kodac Eastman Plus-X Negative Film 5231 (the film is now discontinued), which gives the movie its signature look.
Overall, however, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X‘s title as lowest-grossing film of 2012 is not a reflection on its quality. Fans of classic sci-fi or cult movies should definitely add this film to their list.