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THE JOHNSONS (1992)

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"Listen to me: the Mahxitu have a myth. Xangadix will beget seven sons. They shall impregnate their sister. The child that is born as a result will veil the earth in darkness for ever…."
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The JohnsonsDirector: Rudolf van den Berg
Starring: Monique van de Ven, Esmee de la Bretoniere, Kenneth Herdigein, Otto Sterman, Rik van Uffelen, Olga Zuiderhoek, Rodney Beddall, Elise Hoomans
Screenplay: Leon de Winter, based upon an original story and screenplay by Rocco Simonetti and Roy Frumkes

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Synopsis: Dr Johnson (Rodney Beddall), an American surgeon working in the Netherlands, delivers septuplets by Caesarian section. Driving home afterwards, the doctor stops his car at the edge of a lake. Smearing his face with clay from the lakebed and wading into the water, Johnson calls upon a mysterious force to manifest itself. A sheet of fire spreads across the lake as something rises from the water…. Twenty-one years later, Victoria Lucas (Monique van de Ven) accepts an assignment to photograph the rare night heron, which lives in a marshland area known as the Biesbosch. Victoria’s teenage daughter, Emilee (Esmee de la Bretoniere), suffers a nightmare in which she sees seven identical young boys commit mass murder, then paint a strange symbol on the walls in the blood of their victims. As the boys reach for her with bloody hands, Emilee wakes, screaming…. Professor of ethnology Winston Keller (Kenneth Herdigein) has dinner with his irresponsible, womanising father (Otto Sterman), during which he learns that his father, who is from Brazil, has been practicing native ritual and selling "charms". On their way to Keller’s apartment, the two men stop at the university to inspect some material found by Keller’s assistant, Angela (Olga Zuiderhoek). Meanwhile, Emilee has another nightmare, this time of a prison-like building, and seven men in full-head clay masks, who capture and sexually assault her. Keller and Angela watch a film shot during the 1934 expedition of Henri Vidal-Naquet, who lived amongst the Mahxitu Indians of the Amazon, who wear clay masks during their rituals. To Keller’s astonishment, the footage contains shots of a hideous, embryo-like creature enclosed in a crystal. Angela recounts how Vidal-Naquet stole the embryo, but shortly afterwards went insane and killed himself; and how the rest of the expedition was killed when their ship sank on the way back to Europe, the only survivor being the doctor, an American. It was the doctor’s widow who later donated the material to the university. Suddenly, Keller’s father, who has been watching the film in silent horror, interrupts, insisting that the footage be destroyed. On his way to work the next day, Keller is forced into a van by two men, and finds himself confronted by a government security agent called De Graaf (Rik van Uffelen). De Graaf tells Keller that he wants his advice on how to deal with seven psychopaths held in an old fort in the Biesbosch. The clinic is about to be closed, and no-one knows what to do with them. De Graaf further reveals that the men have been locked up since a massacre in a children’s home some fourteen years earlier; they are now aged twenty-one. Victoria prepares for her camping trip, and Emilee decides to accompany her. On the way, Emilee tells her mother that she thinks her nightmares are being caused by her anxiety over not having had her first period. Victoria confides that when she was Emilee’s age, she was hospitalised with severe menstrual problems. Keller accompanies De Graaf to the fort where the psychopaths are held. Keller is disgusted with the brutal way the men are handled, until he sees footage of them attacking and literally tearing their doctor apart. Although sickened by the sight, Keller’s attention is caught by a strange, embryo-like symbol painted on the walls by the men in their victim’s blood. De Graaf asks Keller to explore the symbol’s meaning. Keller refuses to help until De Graaf tells him more about the psychopaths. Reluctantly, De Graaf confesses that the men are brothers – septuplets – the result of the world’s first successful in vitro fertilisation experiment….

Comments: Though the film is far from perfect, I found watching The Johnsons to be a wonderfully invigorating experience. In an era when so many horror movies are simple-minded replicas of one another – same plot, same false scares, same irritating characters – it was a genuine pleasure to encounter a film whose main virtue is its creativity. According to the film’s director, Rudolf van den Berg, the original screenplay devised by Rocco Simonetti and Roy Frumkes was re-written by himself and Leon de Winter when they found it to be dominated by "grotesque effects without human feeling." While it is true that The Johnsons contains considerably more "human feeling" than is to be found in many modern horror films, by the end we have had more than a few "grotesque effects", as well. Nevertheless, De Winter and van den Berg’s attempt to craft something carried principally by its story succeeds to a commendable extent. After the opening sequence, in which we are made conscious of the existence of the septuplets, and the connection between the eponymous Dr Johnson and some mysterious supernatural force, the film presents the viewer with a series of parallel plot threads which slowly, fascinatingly, begin to intertwine. Although we are aware that there is a link, possibly psychic, possibly physical, between Victoria and Emilee Lucas and the "seven psychopaths" being investigated by Keller and De Graaf, anticipating the explanation is satisfyingly difficult. (The connection, when it is revealed, is one that female viewers in particularly are likely to find very disturbing.) In fact, in contrast to far too many modern genre films, which are predictable to the point of boredom, The Johnsons achieves its effects primarily through the simple expedient of keeping the audience wondering - What the hell is going on here!?

Where The Johnsons really succeeds is where most of its ilk fail dismally: on the level of character. As my colleagues and I have said again and again – and again and again and again – it simply cannot be that hard to write movie characters that the viewer can like. Yet when you watch as many genre films as I do, you might well end up thinking that it must be the most difficult thing in the world, given the number of films populated by unbelievably stupid, boring, foul-mouthed and foul-tempered individuals – and these, as often as not, are our heroes! The Johnsons, thankfully, demonstrates that we were right in the first place. The four central characters - Victoria and Emilee, Keller and De Graaf - are not presented in any great depth, granted, but the viewer is given enough information, skilfully sketched in, to understand what each of them is about, and to remain interested and sympathetic. The presence of the just-turned-fourteen Emilee notwithstanding, The Johnsons is primarily a film for and about adults - a welcome change in itself. Honestly, I wish I had a dollar for every horror film I’ve ever seen in which there were no adults present. Anyone else noticed this? Film after film, stuffed to the brim with teenagers, yet nary a mother or father to be seen – they’re always "away on business", or something. Whether the writers have recognised that the presence of adults might prevent their teen characters from behaving as moronically as the "plot" requires, or whether these horror films are marketed so relentlessly at teenagers that even the presence of an adult within the story is anathema, I’m sure I don’t know. Here, in refreshing contrast, the parent-child relationship is not merely present in the story, but the very crux of the plot. The by-play between Emilee and Victoria in the early scene in which Emilee takes a phonecall for her mother, and gets the details of Victoria’s next assignment – the fateful trip to the Biesbosch – is enough to delineate the relationship between the two. As parent and child, they truly love one another; and on top of that, they are the best of friends. They have fun, enjoy each other’s company. They choose to spend time together. Given that most horror films, not unnaturally, tend to focus on dysfunctional families, The Johnsons achieves another level of interest by building itself upon a close-knit mother and daughter - an aspect of the story helped enormously by the warm and appealing performances of Monique van de Ven and Esmee de la Bretoniere. When it becomes clear that Emilee is not just connected with the psychopaths, but their target, the strength and depth of the relationship between the girl and her mother is ultimately all that stands between Victoria and death, and Emilee and - something infinitely worse.

The other central characters, Keller and De Graaf, are interesting in their own right, although it would be fair to say that neither of them is especially original, as such. Keller in particular treads a well-worn path: in the face of his father’s devotion to "superstition" and "the old ways", the younger man has made science his religion - only to discover that it doesn’t have all the answers, and that his father may have been right all along. De Graaf, the Government sp00k given the task of deciding what to do with the psychopaths, is hard-nosed, cold-blooded, taciturn - but not stupid, and perhaps more unexpectedly, not unimaginative. It is De Graaf who is the source of most of what the audience learns about the seven, each tiny fact being forced from him by Keller, and a great deal - although we never know just how much - remaining withheld. From him we learn of the psychopaths’ origin, "seven embryos from a single egg"; of the massacre in the children’s home; of the fort in the Biesbosch that has been their prison ever since. The embryo-like symbol that the seven paint compulsively in their victims’ blood sets Keller on the track of the truth, leading him to the legend of Xangadix, the source of all evil - and then, to the truth about the seven. What is particularly pleasing here is how swiftly the two men accept that truth, not because they are credulous, but simply because no other explanation is possible. Few things are more alienating than movie characters who carry a refusal to believe past any plausible limit; who shut their eyes to the evidence and continue to demand a rational explanation even as the bodies pile up around them. Standing in the ruins of the home where, as seven year olds, the septuplets slaughtered sixteen of their companions, Keller and De Graaf almost come to blows, both of them professionally outraged by being forced to confront things that every rational impulse tells them cannot be true - and that every gut instinct tells them must be. In the end, the two believe because they have no other choice. Keller’s advice to De Graaf on "what to do" with the psychopaths is brief and to the point: "Kill them. All seven of them." But unfortunately for De Graaf - and infinitely more unfortunately for the security team in charge of guarding the seven - other forces are at work, and it is already too late.

While the strength of its story and characters are its main virtues, there are other things to enjoy about The Johnsons. For one thing, although the plot centres upon the threatened sexual violation of a fourteen year old girl, and Emilee is briefly glimpsed nude, the film, remarkably enough, never feels exploitative. Although an "explanation" for the story’s events is eventually forthcoming, an agreeably disturbing feeling remains after watching the film, largely because of all the tangential issues that are not explained: just why Dr Johnson was so eager to "veil the earth in darkness", for instance (we are left to assume some kind of Lovecraftian pact); or how the seven ended up in a "home" in the first place (did they mean to adopt them out!?); or the significance of the repeated, ominous mentions of the septuplets’ "mother". Then, too, there are several quirkily funny moments that perversely succeed in adding to the horror, such as the security team being fatally distracted from their task by - of all things! - a Laurel and Hardy film. The Johnsons is a richly atmospheric film, and director van den Berg achieves some startling imagery, particularly during the opening sequence - the birth of the septuplets shown from inside the uterus! - and throughout Emilee’s nightmares. The score by Patrick Seymour is also noteworthy. Most importantly of all, the seven psychopaths are quite terrifying, all the more so because they never make a sound. The final sequence, in which they lay siege to Victoria and Emilee’s apartment, is nerve-wracking in the extreme. (Watching the seven go silently, relentlessly about their bloody task, I couldn’t help wondering whether someone connected with this film had been frightened by Ken Wiederhorn’s wonderfully creepy Shock Waves at an impressionable age.)

There is a lot of good stuff in The Johnsons, but unfortunately the film falls apart badly during the home stretch. Particularly disappointing is the way that the strong story is suddenly shunted aside in favour of full-on gore effects. This is a phenomenon that strikes me as all too common - as if horror directors feel under some kind of obligation to conciliate any disappointed gorehounds. During the first two thirds of the film, the violence is certainly present, but it is handled with a degree of subtlety. However, from the moment a machete is left lying around in a terribly suggestive manner, we know it’s only a matter of time.... The gore itself, plentiful though it is, is not really the problem, but rather that simultaneously with the (literal) explosion in violence, the film loses its grip on both its plot and its characters, finally putting way too much of a strain on the old suspension of disbelief. For one thing, all the sidelined characters suddenly turn out to be connected to one another - for instance, the woman in charge of the medical records that Keller and De Graaf must search through conveniently turns out to be the aunt of Emilee’s boyfriend, allowing the two men to track Victoria down in minimal time. Still more problematical is the sudden switch in the handling of Keller’s father, who the audience is encouraged to laugh at for most of the film, and then suddenly asked to take deadly seriously during the climactic scene. Even the violent scenes becomes a bit too much to swallow, unfortunately progressing from the serious and unsettling to the ludicrously outré. By the time we’ve suffered through death-by-television, The Johnsons has almost descended to the realm of yet another ho-hum "it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously" non-horror film. The biggest problem of all, however, is the final scene, which is terribly weak - and doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. (How, might one ask, did Christian ritual manage to get tied in with the legends of Amazonian Indians??) Clearly, not one of the four writers who worked on this film could think of a satisfactory way to end it. This is disappointing in itself, but even more so simply because so much of what has gone before has been so good - strong, imaginative, daring - all the things that horror films so rarely are these days.

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