Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word (2016)

With his features The Living and the Dead (2006) and Red White & Blue (2010), and his standout shorts Bitch (on 2011’s Little Deaths) and P is for Pressure (on 2012’s The ABCs of Death), Simon Rumley has proved again and again to be the UK’s best kept secret when it comes to intelligent genre filmmaking that traffics in horrors most human. Rumley’s latest, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word, is something of a deviation from his usual modus operandi. After all, not only is it the first time that he is serving as ‘director-for-hire’ on a screenplay by someone else (Ben Ketai and Marc Haimes), but it is also his first foray into the (possibly) supernatural. Still this story – of a convicted killer taking vengeance from beyond the grave against those who conspired to sentence him to death – comes with an unusual grounding in reality.

There really was a Johnny Frank Garrett, a mentally impaired teenager found guilty in 1982 of raping, mutilating and murdering an elderly nun the previous Halloween in Amarillo Texas – and executed, still protesting his innocence, a decade later. Jesse Quackenbush’s feature documentary The Last Word (2008) persuasively laid out the evidence that Garrett’s trial and subsequent death resulted from a serious and systemic miscarriage of justice. Ben Ketai and Marc Haimes’ fictionalised screenplay takes its cue from the fact that, shortly before dying, Garrett declared a curse upon his persecutors – many of whom subsequently died from accidents, illness or suicide. While the screenplay must, in keeping with the requirements of genre, invent from scratch a juror, Adam Redman (Mike Doyle), and have him race, ridiculously, against the clock to lift Garrett’s curse and save his family, Rumley nonetheless navigates through this material in a way that still leaves it an open question whether this string of deaths is really a Satanic vendetta, or perhaps just an expression of collective guilt and mass hysteria.

Genre cinema loves an executed killer coming back for revenge – but what distinguishes Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word from, say, Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), James Isaac’s The Horror Show (1989) or Uwe Boll’s Seed (2006), is that Garrett has unquestionably been wronged, making him a demonic antagonist who also, unusually, has our sympathies from the get-go. This ambiguity in his character can be discerned in his appearance at the time of his execution, when (as played by Devin Bonnée) he sports a ragged beard and long hair that make him simultaneously resemble Charles Manson (to whom at one point he is expressly compared) and Jesus. The execution itself, with Garrett strapped to the gurney in a Christ-like pose while his family laments and corrupt DA Danny Hill (Sean Patrick Flanery) openly mocks, only adds to the impression that this convict has been made a convenient scapegoat for a community’s sins.

It is not the only way in which the mythos of the New Testament maps itself uneasily onto this semi-fictitious Texan tale from the Nineties. The jury of “good God-fearing people” is explicitly compared to Jesus’ twelve disciples, and engages in group prayer before reaching its verdict, even as it pressures Adam into laying aside his doubts about convicting Garrett. Adam himself, a sceptic with few religious convictions (“I work hard, I take care of my family,” he tells Hill, “That is what I believe in”), is soon plunging headlong into his new-found certainty that “Johnny’s soul wants justice”, and allowing himself to shoulder the city’s burden and become a martyr to the ca(u)se.

Rumley eschews CG effects in his presentation of the revenant Garrett, preferring in-camera trickery and rapid, hallucinatory editing – and in this allegory of faith, he never quite resolves the question of whether we are seeing unfold the workings of one man’s crazed, over-credulous conscience, or a self-sacrificing act of atonement and martyrdom. This is a strange spin on familiar materials, making it hard in the end to be sure whether the film’s final image of a collapsing crucifix is a critical intervention of the devil, or just of the director…

© Anton Bitel