johnny frank

SXSW world premiere midnighter JOHNNY FRANK GARRETT’S LAST WORD claims to be based on real events involving a case in Amarillo, Texas, where a young man was executed for raping and killing a nun despite maintaining his innocence and some rather questionable evidence. On the night of his lethal injection, Johnny writes a curse out on anyone associated with the case and strangely right after that, a number of people die, including a few jurors. In the film, Adam (Mike Doyle) is the last holdout on the jury and, after his son mysteriously develops a heart condition, the only one willing to try to get Garrett the fair trial he never received.

Apparently there was a documentary on this same case a few years ago (THE LAST WORD directed by Jesse Quackenbush) and the whole time I was watching the new Simon Rumley horror film, I couldn’t help but wish I was watching the actual story, the details of which seem twisted and turned for the purposes of a narrative film. The curse seems very random, not affecting every juror, sometimes affecting family instead of the actual people, sometimes acting fast, sometimes a slow developing condition. This all may be true in real life, but in terms of a frightening attack from the other side, it does not work at all. In the end, Adam makes a desperate attempt for truth and then seems to [wooh spoilers here]sacrifice himself for the life of his son, but there is no attempt to develop why that sacrifice would have been accepted. Also, its not at all scary. No one is frightened by a heart condition, hair falling out or a car accident. So as a horror film, it is extremely unfulfilling.

johnny frank poster
But plotting isn’t the only thing lacking in the film, whether or not it shines a truthful light on the case. The film is just really poorly made. The washed-out tones of color seem to go in and out of the screen as if the colorist forgot his orders. There are bewildering editing choices with flashes of something that seem either completely disconnected to what we are watching or at least disconnected to the character such that we don’t know who is seeing what or why. There are references to dreams and visions but it is unclear when these are happening or who is having them.

But the biggest violation of my patience are the crowd scenes and the work of the extras. The mob scene outside the courthouse that opens the film has got to be one of the least convincing jokes of a mob I have ever witnessed. Unison chanting and arm movement by a group of people who look entirely disinterested in what they are doing reminds this viewer of a cartoon or a film directed by a middle schooler. And the disinterest continues inside to the courtroom where the extras acting is distractingly bad and pulls focus from the other actors, which not surprisingly, is also bad. In fact, the acting through the whole film is uniformly awful, so there is no one to blame but the director and the words of the script, which to call on the nose almost feels on the nose. It is awful. No subtext, no character development, really no characters at all. Honestly, this film is so hopelessly inept at accomplishing anything it sets out to do that make me question the programming choices of the entire festival.

I’d like to say the one highlight is… but really there was nothing. If I hadn’t been at an Alamo Drafthouse and waiting on my check I would have bailed halfway through. The one takeaway is that I am now very interested in watching Quakenbush’s doc.

Please avoid this film. SXSW offers several midnighters and dark films, I highly recommend “Another Evil,”  “Pet,”  “I Am Not A Serial Killer,” or really anything I haven’t seen – which has got to be better.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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