JOHNNY FRANK GARRETTS LAST WORD
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 Garretts 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 Garretts 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 Rumleys 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 killers 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 couldnt 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 Gacys 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.