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Will Keenan is Johnny X. De Anna Joy Brooks is Bliss.

Oh yes. There are musical numbers.

Creed Bratton's rock star character has seen better days, but the show must go on...

Director Paul Bunnell.

"The Ghastly Love of Johnny X": An Indie Must-See.

This weekend's San Francisco treat: An indie film unlike any other.

Of all the films at SF Indiefest this weekend, none will leave a mark quite like Paul Bunnell's The Ghastly Love of Johnny X. It's the only movie to set a box office record at the worst possible end of the scale while still being historically significant enough to draw the attention of CBS News and the Library of Congress. "It’s the only sci-fi dark comedy romantic musical you need to see this year!" boasts Bunnell. He's not lying.

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is what would happen if The Wild One and The Rocky Horror Picture Show had a drunken weekend spree. "It’s a movie about juvenile delinquents from outer space of the singing and dancing variety," Bunnell explains. Prepare for alien greasers, out-of-nowhere musical numbers, mad science, and a zombie rock star. Parsing the plot any further may endanger your sanity.

Johnny X immediately set box office records last year, but not the good kind: It was the lowest grossing film of 2012 with total revenues of $116.15 (rounded down from seventeen cents, says the director). But, strangely, it was the movie's popularity that earned it that dubious distinction. When Johnny X won audience choice award at the Kansas International Film Festival the prize was a brief run in a single theater in Overland Park, Kansas. Since that meant that Johnny X was, technically, a theatrically released film, Bunnell went down in the record books as the man with the three-figure box office.

But the embarrassing receipts did help gin up attention. CBS News' Bill Geist has lined Bunnell up for an interview about it. "I do feel bad for my investor though," Bunnell adds, thinking of the million dollar budget. Johnny X is also a historical milestone as the last movie to ever be shot on Kodak's original, 35 mm black and white film stock (Kodak stopped making it years ago). The Library of Congress even has a copy.

So with all the fuss, how is the movie? Well, brace yourselves, because The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is something close to amazing. Plenty of filmmakers show off their affection for 50s kitsch and 60s B-movie fare, but give Bunnell credit for doing it with integrity by committing to the gritty film stock, obvious sets, and rear-projection driving scenes. While most movies in this style try to appeal to the audience's love of retro, Bunnell just seems to be having fun with the methods.

The gloriously hammy cast includes Will Keenan of Tromeo & Juliet, Kate Maberly, all grown up since the days of Finding Neverland, horror icon Reggie Bannister of Phantasm fame, and, of all people, The Office's Creed Bratton. As with Bunnell's directing, it doesn't seem as if the cast is being over-the-top because they want to manipulate the audience. Rather, they appear to be genuinely enjoying the material.

Johnny X is playful and exuberant and charming. It's also baffling and occasionally frustrating. There's no reason a movie like this should exceed 90 minutes, and some musical number seem intentionally aimless. But it's hard to hold a grudge against something so lovingly produced. "I made it for everyone," Bunnell says, adding: "But it's not for everyone." 

If you’re feeling patient and want a once-in-a-lifetime film experience this weekend, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X will send you out grinning.

Johnny X screens at the Roxie Theater, Friday (Feb. 15) and Monday (Feb. 18). Bunnell will be in attendance for both. Tickets available at Sfindie.com

 

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