SPOILER ALERT: This review contains MINOR spoilers.
As a kid that wasn’t exactly swimming in popularity growing up, one of my favorite types of horror films has always been the “supernatural revenge” film. Movies like Evilspeak, Carrie, Christine, The Crow, Pumpkinhead, and The Wraith, just to name a very few of many. There’s nothing quite like seeing bullies and assholes get their bloody comeuppance. It’s the kind of horror which lacks representation in today’s ghost-obsessed media, which is why my hopes were high that Johnny Gruesome would be the cheesy answer to the craving deep inside my gut. Looks like I’ll have to go on starving.
Written and directed by Gregory Lamberson (Slime City, Killer Rack) and based on Lamberson’s novel of the same name, Johnny Gruesome tells the story of Johnny Grissom (Anthony De La Torre), a metal-head cleverly referred to by his bullies as “Gruesome”. When Johnny is murdered, he returns from the grave and decides to wreak havoc on all of those who have wronged him.
I bet if I told you that Johnny’s main bully, Todd (Travis Torlone) and his cronies are NOT the culprits in Johnny’s death, you’d probably be surprised. Isn’t this a film about an undead zombie kid getting vengeance for his death, and wouldn’t it make perfect sense with almost zero complications to have the main villains of the piece be said bullies, with Johnny as a sort of anti-hero? Why yes, yes it would. Look at almost any film like this, and that’s often the case. A trope, maybe, but it works, and as they say, why fix what’s not broken? But no, instead, in this case, Johnny is offed by one of his closest friends, Gary (Chris Modryznski), in front of best friend, Eric (Byron Brown II) and girlfriend Karen (Aprilann). Why? Because Johnny was driving too fast and wouldn’t slow down, so Gary decides to pull him out of the car and rage kill him. It isn’t even an accident! It’s straight up murder! And for some reason, rather than go to the police, the others take Gary’s side.
Now, I’m not usually one for spoilers in my reviews, but it’s important to understand just how illogically ludicrous and unmotivated Johnny’s death is. I’m all for the twist of having his friends murder him, but would it have killed Lamberson to give them a little motivation? And how silly is it that, while Johnny is getting choked out, his friends just sit in the car screaming, instead of, I don’t know, helping? Maybe it would’ve made more sense if Gary hated Johnny, but Lamberson doesn’t give us a whiff of any tension between the two beforehand. For supernatural revenge films like this to work, the motive has to be strong. There needs to be an obvious rage, an incessant urge to right a wrongdoing, and the set up here is far more laughable than it is understandable, especially when it would have been so easy to have a group of bullies attack and kill Johnny, considering Johnny Gruesome opens with Johnny fighting and embarrassing Todd. Missed opportunities is a frequent theme with the film.
Perhaps the set-up would make a little more sense if we understood more about the characters, but who needs character development when you have grating, corny dialogue, am I right? Lamberson gives us nothing but surface level character traits. Eric’s a virgin. Karen loves Johnny. And Gary does drugs. These three characters are simplified down to those basic traits, and as for Johnny and what drives him to suddenly decide to “attempt” to kill his friends? I don’t know. His fight early on leads to a one week suspension, and he doesn’t like his dad (Michael DeLorenzo), but as far as we know, that’s it. And isn’t that the irony, that Johnny is mad at his friends for killing him when he (supposedly) tried to murder-suicide them? Lamberson doesn’t seem to care, as this is barely addressed, so we shouldn’t either, and with actors/actresses lumbering through lines like a bunch of emotionless corpses, why should we? This cast couldn’t convince me that the sun is hot if we were standing in an open field on a cloudless, hundred-degree summer day. Torre has some potential as Johnny, but even he is surprisingly limited to minimal dialogue after his initial death. Another wasted opportunity.
Johnny Gruesome is also a film which is completely devoid of any genuine tension or scares. It isn’t that the potential isn’t there, the concept practically begs for it, but between the cast and Lamberson’s choppy direction, there just isn’t much of a sense of any type of emotion throughout except boredom. I had to check my pulse a few times to make sure I hadn’t become undead as well, because Lamberson does nothing to get the heartbeat racing. Johnny Gruesome is the kind of film that just sort of limps around, without any natural progression. Scenes do not organically bleed into each other, instead coming at us in a random series of off-screen kills and characters “coping” with Johnny’s death.
As for the kills, which are often the highlight of this horror sub-genre, well, don’t hold your breath waiting for the one that will impress you, or you may end up as blue in the face as Johnny. Like I mentioned, many, including the first and what could have been the most gratifying, are done off-screen. Which is pretty ill-conceived, considering the makeup department actually does a pretty great job with what little bloodshed is shown. Johnny in particular is indeed a gruesome sight to behold, with eyes that penetrate and a rotting face that would make Freddy Krueger look attractive. As to be expected with a low-budget horror film, the CGI effects look about as bad as it gets, with Johnny’s “spirit” reminding me of World of Warcraft ghosts running around in an attempt to return to their dead bodies. It may even be worse than that. This effect is thankfully limited to a couple scenes, but is a great example of why, in low budget horror, if you can’t do it practically, you shouldn’t do it at all. And don’t even get me started on CGI blood.
I said “missed opportunities” is the main theme here, and I meant it, because without a doubt, Lamberson’s greatest misstep is by playing Johnny Gruesome completely straight. With everything I’ve described, you would think Lamberson would accept the B-movie nature of the plot and indulge in that. Instead, he relies on his cast to sell feelings that aren’t there. Hell, there isn’t even an ounce of intentional comedy in this film, more or less any genuine laughs outside of a couple of eye rolls here and there. I mean come on, the film is titled Johnny Gruesome, and Johnny doesn’t even utter a single one liner or bad pun. I’d even take a few atrocious jokes, as long as they tried! It’s bad enough that what should be a fun, cheesy slasher is completely lacking in the usual over the top gore, but to have the film treated as if I’m watching anything remotely serious is probably the most gruesome thing about this venture through mediocrity.
In the end, Johnny Gruesome and Lamberson miss far too many chances to make this the entertaining B-horror slasher it could be by taking absolutely none. Johnny Gruesome is like a bad Tinder date. You liked what you saw in the date’s photos, but in person, they’re like a human representation of a funeral home; Drab, quiet, and accompanied by a weird smell. Don’t even grab the check on this one, just pretend to hit the bathroom and bail.