Based on the true crime that took place on Halloween in 1981, where a 76-year-old nun was raped and murdered in her room at a convent in Amarillo, Texas. It didn’t take long for police to finger 17-year-old Johnny Frank Garrett, a mentally handicapped teen who lived not far from the convent. The juvenile was tried and convicted, after a very unfair trial. For the next ten years Garrett maintained his innocence while awaiting his death sentence. He was executed in 1992 via lethal injection. Strangely, those involved in the Garrett’s arrest and trial began dying soon after. Simon Rumley’s latest feature explores the Garrett case, but with a supernatural twist.
Rumley’s fictional account follows Adam Redman (Mike Doyle), the sole juror on the case with a voice of reason. He’s outnumbered though, and despite his skepticism Garrett is sentenced to death. Life resumes as normal until the day Garrett is finally put to death, and Garrett unleashes a curse upon everyone who had a hand in his conviction. Strange things begin to happen; nightmares, deaths, people behaving in a bizarre manner, and Redman’s own 10-year-old son falls ill. Redman must wade through the dark past if he has any hope of saving his son from the vengeful curse.
Rumley builds the suspense and mood slowly. He’s more interested in exploring the moral implications behind this small town’s actions. It’s a town of corruption and secrets, and Rumley rightly focuses on weaving a complex story than cheap jump scares. It’s a rare horror film that feels like it has something to say, and poses some interesting questions on the human condition and ethics. That, despite fictional flourishes for a better constructed narrative, this is all based on actual events really makes the gears turn.
Had the Garrett case not actually been true, this story would have felt derivative. From a narrative perspective, the stakes never quite feel high enough for the town. The film’s curse isn’t as fully explored as it should be. It’s because of the horrifying factual nature that this screenplay has meaning, especially with popular documentaries like Making a Murderer similarly exposing flaws in our legal system. That alone makes this tale terrifying, but Rumley takes it further with his unique vision.
The eerie sound design complements the vintage aesthetic well. The retro filter really sells that small town feel. The vengeful spirit of Garrett is wisely kept out of sight for the most part, his looming presence clamping down on the town like a vice. Doyle as Redman makes for a charming lead, and the sole beacon of light in a dark town full of selfish or corrupt. Though we don’t ever spend much time with Garrett, actor Devin Bonnée does bare a striking resemblance.
While the screenplay has a few missteps, particularly in the climax, Rumley’s latest feature works due to the source material on which it’s based. There’s a gripping true story at the center, one that deserved to be explored. Rumley wisely keeps that front and center, and crafts a slow build terror around it.
Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word [SXSW Review]
Simon Rumley’s latest feature explores the true crime case of Johnny Frank Garrett, but with a supernatural twist. It’s factual leanings gives the story meaning and depth when it would otherwise be derivative. A slow build terror that will leave you wanting to learn more.