Based on the documentary The Last Word, English director Simon Rumley’s (whose segment in The ABCs Of Death, “P Is For Pressure” left a pretty lasting impact) Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word is a lively, sharp and often quite shocking take on a well-known US tale. It also represents the director’s first foray into mainstream fare, although he’s lost none of the bite or edge that made his name.
The setting is Amarillo, Texas, where the titular man – “the essence of evil” we are told – is being sentenced to death by a jury of God-fearing, very nearly torch-wielding townspeople. A small-town mindset is prevalent here; nobody wants to go against the grain or speak up in defiance of generally-perceived and universally accepted notions. Even the prosecutor, in his closing statement, refers to Garrett as “the devil” and swears “to God” that he’ll kill again if he isn’t executed.
The religious subtext is laid on rather thick in these opening moments, but it fits well when the story moves ten years into the future, where juror Adam (The Invitation‘s Mike Doyle, excellent) is wracked with guilt over sentencing who he believes to be an innocent man to death. Meanwhile, Garrett is executed, but not before professing his innocence one last time. Later, in a letter he’s left behind, those who wronged him are cursed to pay for their actions.
Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word is an odd little film. Equal parts No Country For Old Men and Final Destination, it utilises its sun-baked Texan setting and bizarre, true story origins to maximum effect. Because we are told this bizarre tale through the eyes of someone who, ostensibly, seems to be one of the good guys, we are given a first-person perspective in order to put ourselves in his position, and to ask what we would do in his place.
As the bodies start dropping all around him – in thrilling, terrifying sequences such as when one woman does something unthinkable with a pencil, and another has an ‘accident’ at home – Adam struggles to understand how to break the supposed curse. He rushes to clear Garrett’s name, unsure if doing so will even work as he’s told that the strongest curse of all is that of innocents, of martyrs.
Meanwhile, an angry wound opens up on Adam’s arm that is so disgusting it’d give Jared Leto’s in Requiem For A Dream a run for its money. Providing a surprisingly gross body horror element, this is also emblematic of the movie’s impressively strong genre connections. Garrett’s execution scene is harrowing, blood splatters all over a windscreen at one point, and that pencil moment is surely one of the worst since Heath Ledger’s Joker showed us a magic trick.
Running underneath it all is Simon Boswell’s (who’s done everything from Hackers to Argento’s Phenomena) compulsively creepy, screechy score. This is an incredibly atmospheric movie, dynamically shot and tightly edited so it never quite settles into a groove–such is its power. There may be dissenters claiming this isn’t “real” horror but, much like this year’s The Witch, it doesn’t need to get big and loud (or obvious) to be scary.
If it weren’t based on a true story, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word might be a little harder to swallow. The fact that it is just makes it that bit more frightening. A passionately told, well-performed and hugely unsettling offering from a filmmaker whose career is, by this evidence, only just getting started. Should attract the How To Make A Murderer crowd, horror fans in general and everybody in between. See it.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Simon Rumley
Writer(s): Ben Ketai, Tony Giglio, Marc Haimes
Stars: Mike Doyle, Sean Patrick Flannery, Erin Cummings, Devin Bonnée
Studio/ Production Co: A7SLE Films
Length: 95 minutes