Screamfest Review: Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word

Well, at any film festival, they can’t all be winners, not even Cannes or Sundance. I understand programming Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word at Screamfest given its disturbing themes, but this one was not for me. Hopefully, the rest will be better.

Based on a true story, a jury convicts Johnny Frank Garrett of raping a 79-year-old nun in 1982. In 1992, Johnny Frank Garrett is finally executed and with his dying words, curses the people who falsely convicted him. It turns out his curse wasn’t just a figure of speech because people involved with his trial start dying.

Our main character is Adam (Mike Doyle), the one dissenting juror who was convinced to convict Garrett. He’s happily married to Lara (Erin Cummings) with a son Sam (Dodge Prince). A few people in town start dying and Adam experiences scary visions, but when it starts to affect Sam, Adam investigates the case further to try to break the curse.

Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word employs Natural Born Killers style editing to intercut flashes of violence. This of course entirely misses the point of Natural Born Killers, which was a comment on the media around the time of Garrett’s execution and the cult of celebrity surrounding murderers. I’m probably overthinking it. Plenty of filmmakers used choppy editing for less satirical purposes than Oliver Stone. It’s just ugly to look at and it seems desperate to make something scary out of something generic.

Editing isn’t all this movie has though. There are set piece death scenes that are handled too inelegantly to be effective. A teacher writes Johnny Frank Garrett’s words on the chalkboard The Shining style, but the children screaming at what comes next looks and feels fake, because it was. Obviously, they weren’t actually shown the scary scene, which by the way also lingers too long.

There is a certain “ugly horror” aesthetic in the genre that some filmmakers can do really well. Here it feels like a crutch, because making the lighting and supporting characters repulsive (along with the editing) only seems like the most superficially obvious approach to the story. Adam visits a psychic with missing eyebrows and hair falling out. The entire film is colored beige digitally. It is an ugly film, but without the relentless intensity of a Rob Zombie film to complement it.

By the time Adam experiences bouts of body horror, it just feels like the film is desperately throwing everything it can at the screen. Vehicular stunts are constructed through editing because of course they couldn’t really afford to crash cars or hire stunt drivers.

On the plus side, Doyle and Cummings play the parents sincerely and they are believable. It’s fun to see Sam play Oregon Trail on his home computer. If the casualties portrayed in the film are in fact the people who died after Garrett’s execution, then way to incorporate true deaths into the narrative, I guess.

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