Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Johnsons (1992)

Anthropology professor Keller (Kenneth Herdigein) is roped into doing a contract job for a secret branch of the Dutch ministry of education (no to be confused with the secret branch of the ministry of transport most anthropologists work for once or twice in their lives). He's brought to a secret prison lying hidden away in the marshlands that's maintained to keep seven particularly weird murderers out of circulation. Theirs is not a typical case, that much is sure. The men are the first septuplets born in the Netherlands, and have ritually slaughtered the rest of the inhabitants of the orphanage they were living in at the time when they were just seven years old, leaving strange rituals markings in blood on the walls. Right now, Keller doesn't have too much of a clue what all this means, but the peculiarly timed find of the records of a doomed expedition into the South American jungles will soon clue him in that the sign used by the seven boys belongs to the embryo-shaped godhood Xangadix an obscure indigenous tribe was keeping imprisoned. Like every ancient evil, the god comes with a prophecy of doom, too. One day, seven brothers in the service of the god will rape their own sister and the resulting avatar of Xangadix will destroy the world. Seven, huh?

While Keller is doing his research and fastly transforms from a sarcastic sceptic into a true believer, the audience has already made the acquaintance of teenager Emalee Lucas (Esmée de la Bretoniere) and her mother, the photographer Victoria (Monique van de Ven).

Emalee has been having violent and disturbing nightmares for some time now, but a helpful psychiatrist has convinced her that they are a product of her anxiety about not having had her period yet although she's soon to turn fifteen. That's too bad, really, since one of the girl's nightmares contains visions of seven children, lots of blood and the sign of Xangadix, while another sees her raped by seven men wearing clay masks exactly like those used in rites surrounding Xangadix, so there just might be something more going on with the girl than teenage anxieties.

Out of the blue, Victoria is offered the job to make some shots of an obscure bird that just happens to live in the same region the secret ministry of education prison is situated in. Spontaneously, Emalee decides to accompany her mom. You can imagine that there are no problems at all waiting for mother and daughter on their little camping trip.

Hopefully, the machete of Emalee's dad the film repeatedly points out and Professor Keller will be of some help in their future of fighting off seven cultish maniacs with supernatural powers.

Looking at The Johnson's plot, one can't help but see how utterly ridiculous it all sounds (and I have left out bits like Professor Keller's father being a shaman - alas sometimes a comic relief shaman - who tries to destroy the expedition records his son is working on), but despite this, for most of its running time the film does work surprisingly well. Director Rudolf van den Berg doles out the information about the film's mythology piece by piece, well-timed to let the audience put it together for themselves. This doesn't just reduce the need for too much expositional dialogue, but also makes good use of the fact that most viewers will be quite a bit more tolerant regarding preposterous theories they made up themselves than they would be to theories the film just flat-out tells them to believe in.

The film's mythology shows an obvious and welcome influence of the weird tale sub-genre of fantastic literature, and does make sense inside of its own parameters (for most of the film, that is); Xangadix surely is the sort of evil world-destroying god you'd hope for after Lovecraft and (being a giant embryo and all) automatically more interesting than the usual anti-christ business would have been. Really, the least believable part of the movie's background is the existence of the secret branch of the ministry of education with its own secret prisons and enough power to hide slaughtered orphanages from the public eye. Fortunately, the film puts less emphasis on it than I do here.

Apart from his nice sense for doling out just the right amount of information, van den Berg also has quite a bit of directorial style. The marshlands, Emalee's dreams, and the secret prison evoke a wonderful mood of dread and doom, with just the right amount of archetypical seeming images. Van den Berg has an excellent grip on the creepy effect of small details like the shaved heads of the septuplets that make them look at once more like actual septuplets, strangely baby-like (like the god they worship) and less human. It's very obvious that a lot of love and thought has been put into these aspects of the film. Even the city the film takes place in is in the grip of a garbage collector's strike, making the mostly empty streets parts of the film take place in that much more inhospitable and unreal.

Alas, the film begins to falter once all information has been doled out and all pieces are in place for the finale. Slowly, but surely, The Johnson's transforms into your usual, slightly comedic series of small action/thriller set pieces with a bit more gore than would be necessary and a feeling of utter conventionality that ruins the mood of mythical doom the film's first hour has spent so much care on building up. Don't get me wrong, it's all very competently done and makes good use of a probably very slight budget, but still feels incredibly anti-climactic to me.

The film begins to dare being weird again for its final five minutes, yet also ignores the rules of the mythology it has created. I understand that van den Berg is trying to get something more exciting on screen than just killing off the last of the brothers for his film's grand finale, but lots of white light and a floating embryo puppet aren't really it.

Still, I can recommend the The Johnsons as one of the more interesting and peculiar European horror films of the 90s. Its final act might be disappointing, it is however still competently done, and much of what has come before is quite excellent.


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