Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word (2017)


Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last WordDirected by Simon Rumley

Starring Devin Bonnée, Sean Patrick Flanery, Erin Cummings, Mike Doyle

It says something about our legal system that wrongful imprisonment is deemed curse worthy. Such a lauded position reserved for desecrated sacred burial grounds, wronged women driven to suicide, and satanic rituals also applies to the cold indifference of our legal system. Hell, sit me in a cell for a few years for some shit I didn’t do, and I might consider selling at least a partial equity stake in my soul for some vengeance.

Now I don’t believe in ghosts and shit, but if someone was going to come back from the grave for some spectral retribution, Johnny Frank Garrett would be a great candidate. Executed in 1992 for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit, what happened to him is ripe for a future season of “Making a Murderer.” Just 17 at the time of his arrest, he was accused of raping and murdering a nun. The only evidence of his guilt was a written confession that he never signed, fingerprints found on the scene, and a “vision” from the local police psychic.

The defense would never call any character witnesses and would fail to bring to light that Johnny’s fingerprints were in fact all over the convent. A victim of domestic abuse, he would frequently spend time at the convent helping out to avoid his violent home life. He even moved the very furniture his fingerprints were found on. Further grievances like unreliable testimony from expert witnesses, a questionable medical examiner, disappearing exonerating evidence, and a social sentiment closer to a lynching than a trial would seal Johnny’s fate. With an IQ under 70 and a defense team set on getting this over with as quickly as possible, Johnny was executed on February 11, 1992. Did you even need me to mention that this was in Texas?

It’s all very well catalogued in the 2008 documentary The Last Word. Though clearly heavily editorialized and woven with an uncomfortable Jesus-ey vibe, it’s a fascinating crime story with a paranormal twist. In the last 10 minutes of the film, it’s revealed that on the day of his execution, Johnny left behind a promise that those who wronged him would meet terrible ends. Since then, an uncanny number of those involved in the trial have died. It’s the perfect mix of fact and superstition that turns coincidence into curiosity. You don’t expected a crime story to be so spooky.

Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word takes all the crime and supernatural stuff and flips the proportions. The trial is dealt with in the first 15 minutes, in a Texas community theater abridged rendition of 12 Angry Men. But instead of saving an innocent man, they execute a mentally handicapped teenager. So yeah, Texas.

Fast forward 11 years, and Johnny Garrett now looks like Charles Manson. Word to the wise, if you want people to think you didn’t murder someone, don’t look like Charles Manson. A group of spectators witnesses the execution, with the obligatory mumbling of “burn in hell” just to let you know who the assholes are. As the clock ticks down and the switch is flipped, the poison is injected. If you’re fixing to play predictable horror trope Bingo with this one, let me just go ahead and tell you to mark off the box for “jolts up screaming for a jump scare right before dying.

So boom, the curse is out there, and the first two victims drop. Despite some hokey acting and rushed exposition, I was still pretty on board at this point. The double nasal pencil faceplant suicide bought significant good will. Which the film immediately lost again through intolerable child acting. And then gained back again with some interesting editing. And then lost again with a massive over reliance on it.

Meanwhile, protagonist and good guy juror Adam Redman’s (Doyle) son starts complaining of visions reminiscent of the Johnny Frank Garrett case. After being found late one night beating a bush with a stick (bizarrely a relevant detail to the Garrett case), he’s diagnosed with a previously unknown heart condition. Adam soon surmises that this must be the work of the curse, and his role on the jury is responsible for his son’s affliction. His quest begins to discover the truth, clear Johnny’s name, and save his son.

From here, the movie is mostly a montage of convenient revelations and budget Jacob’s Ladder creepy shaking heads. Things all happen without much emotional consequence, due in equal parts to the discombobulating pace and underdeveloped characters. Every time something scary happens, it’s because that’s the point in the script something needs to happen to remind us that this is a horror movie. This isn’t helped by the scares themselves being just not that scary. There are only so many spooky faces screaming at me in rapid succession I can take before I get bored.

And yet, I really hate shitting on it. In a market saturated by jump scare bullshit, I appreciate a movie that does something different. The spooky shit is best described as aggressively surreal. The tight editing makes for some really interesting shots, especially during the dialogue segments. It keeps you on edge, visually interested in ways that the script just fails to do. The actors do their best to sell some truly terrible writing, and you have to hand it to actors who can earnestly pull off lines like, “Kiss my ever lovin’ ass!

I also respect that Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word did its best to stay true to the historical facts. From the chant outside of the courthouse to some of the methods of death, they did an admirable job of weaving fact into the fiction. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come together into believable rules for the film. The curse itself seems to target at random, with no uniform method of killing. One victim gets a shotgun flipped into his chest, and another just falls down the stairs. By the end, Adam is just straight up wrestling with the ghost. Freddy Krueger might have killed people in all kinds of wacky ways, but at least it had to be in your dreams. With Johnny Frank Garrett, it just seems to be whatever’s most convenient at the time.

I’m not one to decry filmmakers for trying to sexy up historical details. It’s just that the original details were way sexier than what they came up with. Call me a square for liking true crime stories, but I was far more captivated by the regular old The Last Word. Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word is a decent enough mid-budget supernatural horror flick. There’s just only so much I can like something that doesn’t live up to the source material.

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