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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [November 21, 2016]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] The Ghosts of Johnson Woods is not what it sounds like. There are no ghosts. This isn't even a horror film. It's supposed to be a satire about two young people who try to make a horror film.
Lenny (Matt Goosherst) is a fat loser who has no job and no independent means of support. Luckily, he lives at home with his divorced dad (John Bloom), so Lenny needn't work for a living. Instead, he spends his many leisure hours making stop-motion animation YouTube videos. Lenny knows that his filmmaking genius will someday make him rich and famous.
One day, 17-year-old Heather (Haidyn Harvey) sees Lenny shooting still images of stuffed animals with his smart phone. Convinced of his filmmaking brilliance, Heather tells Lenny to think big and make a feature film. A horror film to star the two of them.
Lenny and Heather's ensuing attempts to make a horror film, and the discordant, platonic relationship they form along the way, well, that's the story. Not that there's an actual story. The Ghosts of Johnson Woods is a meandering film, its sequence of events as listless as Lenny himself.
It took me a while, and some outside research, to realize that this was supposed to be a satire of low-budget horror filmmaking. Even at film's end, this wasn't obvious to me. The problem is that Lenny and Heather's filmmaking attempts aren't even inept. It's like they're not even trying to make a movie. They have no script. No story. No characters. Yes, they reference a legend about ghosts and they toss about ideas. But it's all very haphazard, their ideas lacking any coherence, consistency, or direction.
Actually, what they do -- repeatedly throughout the film -- is wander about the woods, staging "cool shots." Heather suggests she hide behind a tree, or look scared and scream. Lenny chases her in another shot or laughs maniacally. Who their characters are, or how this is all supposed to coalesce into a movie, are issues to be ignored. They're content to admire their "cool shots" while fantasizing about movie stardom.
Here's why I missed the satire. I couldn't believe anyone could be as clueless about filmmaking as these two allegedly are. Instead, I suspected ulterior motives. I was certain that Heather knew their "film" was worthless. That she was merely stringing along Lenny, hoping to entrap or blackmail him with the footage. Maybe say he'd attempted to rape her.
This isn't a far-fetched theory. Several times, Heather threatens to accuse Lenny of statutory rape if he touches her. Then she says she's only joking and insists on a foot massage. She's a nasty girl, a threatening tease, lacking innocence and eager to use her sex and youth as weapons.
As for Lenny, I got the sense that he too knew their horror film was worthless. That he only worked on it to get close to Heather, wanting to be near a pretty girl even if he couldn't sleep with her. Yes, he claimed he didn't like her. I didn't believe him.
I had no idea either of them took their film seriously -- who could take it seriously -- so I completely missed the satire. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop. For Heather to spring her trap. For the ulterior motives to emerge. Instead, I was hit with a gory "surprise twist" ending that came out of nowhere.
The Ghosts of Johnson Woods isn't scary. It isn't funny. But I didn't hate it. There was something morbidly compelling about watching these two unpleasant characters snipe at each other while pretending to make a movie. (Even if they weren't pretending.) The Ghosts of Johnson Woods isn't for everyone. Many horror fans will be disappointed with the lack of scares. I doubt I'm the only one who'll miss the humor. But there might be a niche audience for this somewhere.
I asked writer/director Glenn Berggoetz (Midget Zombie Takeover) if he was worried that, having set up audience expectations for ghosts and scares, he'd disappoint them with something completely different. "It's crossed my mind," said Berggoetz. "But the horror genre is filled with surprises, so this might be one of the surprises the film delivers. And ghosts are talked about in the film. So far, of the reviews we've received, critics loved that twist. Hopefully, the general public will like it as well."
The Ghosts of Johnson Woods is an odd film in other ways. There is the matter of Lenny's bedroom. Apparently situated in the basement, it's a bedroom with no bed, sparse furnishings, a bare concrete floor, and padded walls. It's probably the most depressing bedroom outside the prison system. Here Lenny practices his choreography and dance steps. Yes, that's right. In addition to his work in stop- motion animation and horror feature filmmaking, our Renaissance Man is also an aspiring dancer/ choreographer. Not that he's particularly talented in any of his pursuits.
"Because Lenny is such a peculiar guy," explains Berggoetz, "with an odd outlook on life, I wanted him to have an odd living environment. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted him to live in a very stripped-down environment. While a simple existence would typically be the sign of someone who is a thin book to read, Lenny is quite the opposite with his intricate psychological makeup."
The Ghosts of Johnson Woods isn't just a satire of low-budget filmmaking. It's also an example of low-budget filmmaking. As such, it's filled with self-referential jokes. When Heather complains that a small cast is the mark of a low budget film, one can't help but notice Johnson Woods's tiny cast.
"It's a tongue-in-cheek poke at ourselves," Berggoetz confirms. "While we're serious about making films, we don't take ourselves too seriously. Because we make small budget films, this was a fun way to remind ourselves to have fun with the filmmaking process and not get too full of ourselves."
Berggoetz's odd film has odd origins. "The genesis of the film was finding out that a childhood friend had died at just 44 years old. I hadn't seen John Bova since junior high, but we stayed in touch for a couple years after his family moved away. By the eleventh grade we lost touch. Of course, this was before the internet. A few years ago I Googled his name and his obituary came up. However, I could find out almost nothing about his life other than he'd worked at a fast food restaurant upon his death.
"I thought about John a lot, wondering how he might have died. My thoughts got more and more absurd, and eventually tied in with The Ghosts of Johnson Woods. Of course, I'm sure he didn't die in any manner even close to how the film goes. But John's death was the beginnings of the film."
Berggoetz estimates his film's budget at $60,000. I didn't see $60,000 on screen. I've seen films with larger casts, more locations, and impressive visual effects shot for under $15,000. (If the filmmakers are to be believed.) The only way I could see Berggoetz spending $60,000 on Johnson Woods was if he paid his cast and crew. Most micro-budget filmmakers don't. Berggoetz might be the exception. His film does have a minor name actor -- John Bloom, aka Joe Bob Briggs -- who plays Lenny's dad.
Regarding distribution, Berggoetz says, "I've begun to line up some theaters to release the film and I've had some distributors contact me. I haven't signed with anyone yet. I've also had a Roku movie channel ask if they can begin to air the film. The film will eventually be available on Roku after other outlets are explored."
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