Director – Simon Rumley, Screenplay – Marc Haimes & Ben Ketai, Story – Ben Ketai & Tony Giglio, Based on the Documentary The Last Word by Jesse Quackenbush, Producers – Rob DeFranco, Peter Facinelli, Eric Gores & Frank Mancuso Jr., Photography – Milton Kam, Music – Simon Boswell, Visual Effects – Autonomous F/X South Digital (Supervisor – Wes C. Caefer) & Perennial Media Entertainment, Special Effects Supervisor – Brad Manis, Production Design – Chris Trujillo. Production Company – Boss Media/A7sle Films
Mike Doyle (Adam Redman), Sean Patrick Flanery (Danny Hill), Erin Cummings (Laura Redman), Heather Tyler (Carol Moore), Cassie Shea Watson (Kathy Jones), Dick Kendall (Father Colvin), Devin Bonnee (Johnny Frank Garrett), Dodge Prince (Sam Redman)
In 1982 in Amarillo, Texas, Johnny Frank Garrett, a young man with a less than average IQ, is placed on trial, accused of raping and murdering a nun. He protests that he is innocent the entire way through the trial. Adam Redman, one of the jurors, has doubts about the evidence presented, including that crucial evidence as to his guilt came from a psychic. Johnny is convicted despite this and is put to death by lethal injection in 1991. Before he dies, he places a curse on the judge and every one of the jurors, lawyers and witnesses who condemned him, along with their families. In the months after, Adam becomes concerned as a number of people connected to the case begin to die in horrible ways. As his own son becomes ill with a previously undetected melanoma, Adam determines to find the evidence that will clear Johnny’s name and lift the curse.
Simon Rumley is a British director who emerged in the 1990s, first with two short films and then several feature-length dramas with Strong Language (2000), The Truth Game (2001) and Club Le Monde (2002). He ventured into horror with The Living and the Dead (2006), followed by the festival attention that circulated around the grim revenge film Red, White & Blue (2000). More recently, Rumley has been directing episodes of anthology films such as Little Deaths (2011), 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero (2011) and The ABCs of Death (2012). Subsequent to this, Rumley went on to make the non-genre Crowhurst (2017) about a true-life yachting fraud.
Johnny Frank Garrett was a real person. In 1981, the eighteen-year-old Garrett was arrested and tried for the rape and murder of 76 year-old Sister Tadea Benz at the St Francis convent in Amarillo, Texas. Garrett lived across the street from the convent and his fingerprints were found in the room of Sister Tadea. Garrett protested his innocence the entire way through the trial but was sentenced to death nevertheless. He died pronouncing a curse on all who condemned him and their families. Several years later, Jesse Quackenbush made the documentary The Last Word (2004) where he argued that Johnny Frank Garrett was convicted by an incompetent defence attorney and public pressure. The documentary points out numerous holes in the case including the key evidence was obtained from a clairvoyant, how other fingerprints and items not belonging to Garrett were found at the scene but not presented to the jury, as well as the fact that the jury were not told Garrett’s fingerprints were there because he did odd jobs for the church. Quackenbush interviewed another man who confessed to committing the crime and makes a more convincing suspect. The other thing Quackenbush brought out was Garrett’s curse and how a number of people associated with the trial have all died in the years following his execution.
I greatly anticipated Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word on the basis of Simon Rumley’s Red, White & Blue. I was not aware of the Johnny Frank Garrett case so the film left me confused as it started in. The initial scenes depict the court case and sentencing of Garrett. Thereafter, the film skips forward to the execution and the bulk of the show is centred around the deaths that start to occur to people associated with the trial. The first sections of the film do a fair job of approximating a real miscarriage of justice. On the other hand, the second half jumps off from that into horror movie territory and concerns itself with the spirit of the wrongly executed man seeking retribution against those responsible for his death. The two never fully gel – one part of the film has the gritty realism of true crime; the other half resembles an executed killer’s retribution film like The Horror Show (1989) or Shocker (1989).
I had difficulty getting my head around Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word. It felt like it couldn’t decide whether it was being a true crime film or else jumping off into full horror territory and as a result came out satisfying neither of these. The early sections are Simon Rumley in his element – shooting with a harshly stylised realism, creative washes of editing and colour that well convey the atmosphere of the day. On the other hand, when you expect the film to kick into horror mode, it seems to only do so at random. There is never the sense you get in a horror film of the introduction of a victim and the lead up to their death as a set-piece. The effect resembles a film like Gacy House (2010) that tries to convince us that a standard haunted house show was taking place in real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s house – in other words spinning out a spurious connection in real life to build a horror show.
On the other hand, the end credits reveal that the filmmakers were certain that all of this did occur in real-life – there is even a list of the real-life people connected to the case who have died in mysterious circumstances. Somehow one suspects that this is akin to The Omen Curse where the producers of The Omen series sought to market every strange occurrence or accident as evidence of a supposed curse. I am not a believer in the existence of curses and supernatural forces so hold a rigorously sceptical position towards this. Deaths and accidents are so broad that it becomes a case of confirmation bias where everything that suggests the idea of a curse is then seen as evidence of its existence.