The Johnsons (Rudolf van den Berg, 1992)
[originally posted 14Feb2002]
Rudolf van den Berg has won the Golden Calf, which is basically the Oscar, twice in his career, both times before this: in 1982 for San Senten Rebel (Best Long-form Documentary), and in 1984 for Bastille (Best director). I don’t know whether that says worse things about the state of film in the Netherlands or their Academy. Probably neither, if America’s own Academy is anything to go by (I’ll omit yet another rant on the 2002 nominees). But if this guy is one of the cream of the crop over there, there is great pity to be had for the country.
The Johnsons isn’t necessarily a bad film so much as it is a film that hovers on the verge of unintentional greatness. This had the potential to be horror comedy on the same plane as Return of the Living Dead or Dark Star. It missed the mark by such a small margin that it’s painful to watch, but like a particularly gruesome car accident, the hapless viewer keeps watching, hoping and praying that somewhere within the mess a spark of life will be found.
The story begins with Dr. Johnson (Johan Leysen, presently onscreen in Brotherhood of the Wolf) delivering a set of septuplets, then going out into the woods and enacting, sloppily, some sort of odd ritual that ends with what looks like a squat stone idol encased in crystal rising out of a ring of fire in the middle of a lake. We then skip to twenty-one years later (present-day) and two intercut stories: one of a single mother, Victoria Lucas (Monique van de Ven, presently on the TV series Spangen, probably best known to American audiences for the not-too-bad action flick Amsterdamned) and her daughter Emily (the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Esmee de la Bretoniere, for whom this is the only film credit anyone in America has a chance at seeing without importing movies). Victoria, a photographer, takes a job tracking down some rare birds in a secluded swamp. Emily’s been having recurring nightmares about seven crazy-looking kids painting a room with blood, and is in general disrepair emotionally, so Victoria takes her along, hoping that some time in the country will help her state of mind. The other story deals with Winston (Kenneth Herdegein, who’s also frequently seen on TV these days over in Europe), an anthropology professor who’s approached by police inspector de Graaf (veteran TV actor Rik van Uffelen—are you seeing a pattern here?) about seven psychopaths the police have been holding without public knowledge in an out-of-the-way abandoned prison in a secluded swamp. Winston’s father (Otto Sterman), a voodoo priest, warns Winston and de Graaf to get their noses out of it while they can, but the two keep digging for info on the odd symbol said seven psychos keep drawing on the wall, usually in blood.
That’s a brief synopsis of the film’s first ten minutes; I’m pretty sure you can fill in the next ninety-three. To call this “predictable” would be the understatement of the year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Hamlet’s predictable, too. So is Dark Star. Problem is, The Johnsons isn’t anything close to the level of Shakespearean tragedy. The dialogue is alarmingly silly, the characters would have to be better-drawn to be made of cardboard, and the plot stands alone in its utter disregard for anything resembling logic. When faced with such a script, the best directors will take it and play it for laughs, and every once in a while they get something great out of it (the aforementioned Dark Star and Return of the Living Dead being two classic examples). Van den Berg, however, gives us no indication at any point during the film that he and his characters are anything but serious. Even the cop doesn’t crack wise. It’s hard to believe anyone could have considered this a serious piece of filmmaking, but van den Berg did his best to make sure you’d at least try. That said, if the last two minutes of this film don’t have you groaning in sheer agony, you’ve a stronger stomach than I. * ½ (rewatchability factor supplied solely by de la Bretoniere. Hubba hubba.)
[ed. note 2014: I did not know until pulling up that trailer that the movie was co-written by Street Trash‘s Roy Frumkes. Suddenly it makes so much more sense…]