The winner of this year’s unofficial stranger-than-fiction prize at SXSW — yes, even over the documentary about the African-American guy who befriends KKK members — may well be “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word.” What plays as a familiar if inventively handled revenge-from-beyond-the-grave horror opus dramatizes an actual case in which a Texan very possibly wrongly executed for murder “cursed” those who’d aided his conviction — an alarming number of whom then died prematurely after his own death. While the supernatural aspects taken for granted here are naturally debatable, the factual aspects certainly lend an additional frisson to an already vivid, unsettling thriller directed with considerable aplomb and even more energy (sometimes too much) by Simon Rumley. Pic should be sought after by fantasy fests, with good word of mouth there spurring niche sales in various formats.
In 1982 Amarillo, Texas, 76-year-old nun Sister Tadea Benz was found raped and murdered in her convent bedroom. Public outrage and some dubious evidence (not least the tips of a local psychic) led to the arrest of one Johnny Frank Garrett, a slow-witted 17-year-old with an abused history and a record of petty offenses. As portrayed here, the “good, God-fearing” men and women of the jury caved to the inflammatory rhetoric of an ambitious district attorney (Sean Patrick Flanery), while a sole, younger holdout, Adam Redman (Mike Doyle), is bullied into going with the guilty-verdict flow.
In his last hours, Johnny (played by Devin Bonnee) furiously scribbles a long letter to all concerned, again proclaiming his innocence and vowing to wreak vengeance on everyone who put him here — as well as their children, parents, grandparents and ancestors for that matter. After his lethal-injection death (one of several sequences making judicious use of ominous quiet here), that promise seems to bear fruit, leading to unpleasant, variably accidental or suicidal demises for an elderly widow (Allyn Carrell) and schoolteacher (Heather Tyler). Their fellow ex-juror Adam, now comfortably settled with wife Lara (Erin Cummings), home and career, begins feeling uneasy about the whole business once again.
When a reporter (Cassie Shea Watson) aware of the original court case’s irregularities tips Adam off to the existence of the “curse” screed, he soon fears the worst — in particular because his 10-year-old son (Dodge Prince) has suddenly fallen prey to nightmares, odd behaviors and serious illness. Despite everyone else’s skepticism, he decides the only way to halt the mysterious deaths is to posthumously exonerate Johnny. But while the latter’s surviving acquaintances, including a priest (Dick Kendall), already believed him innocent, crucial others (notably that now-powerful D.A.) are hostile to the protagonist’s inquiries, presumably because they don’t want their related falsifications of evidence and such exposed.
Adam’s trail eventually leads him to a convict (Arthur Alonzo Richardson) who might well have been Sister Tadea’s actual murderer. In real life, suspicion has fallen on a long-term inmate with a history of raping and killing older women, who was seen in the area around the time of her death. The whole saga is detailed in Jesse Quackenbush’s 2008 documentary feature “The Last Word,” which Ben Ketai, Mark Haimes and Tony Giglio’s screenplay here is credited as “based on.”
In some respects this liberal dramatization is a sort of horror equivalent to “Bernie,” offering an even more poisoned valentine to the corrupt and self-righteous aspects of another insular Texas community. But Rumley, a U.K.-based indie horror specialist, hardly goes for a docu-dramatic feel, instead laying on a full battery of visual, editorial and sonic tactics designed to keep the viewer off-balance. (This is one horror film in which there are relatively few standard “boo!” scares, yet Rumley manages to keep one constantly dreading them.) For the most part these gambits are vividly effective, though occasionally their hallucinatory bad-trip side (which found better application in the director’s startling madman’s-eye-view quasi-horror “The Living and the Dead” a decade ago) curdles into frenetic overkill, notably during a climactic sequence cutting between multiple life-or-death crises.
But overall, “Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word” juggles eerie restraint and grotesque frenzy with confidence. That carries over to the performance gamut, which runs from earnest naturalism (Doyle’s appealing hero plus other sympathetic figures) to highly theatrical turns like Flanery’s, and Sue Rock’s as the questionable police-informant psychic. Design contributions, too, aren’t afraid to mix up clashing styles for the sake of dislocative impact. Assembly overall is likewise both pro and adventurous.