Johnny Ghost (2012). Australia, 76 minutes. Directed by Donna McRae. Starring: Anni Finsterer, Clara Pagone, and Si Francis.
Donna McRae, who wrote, produced, directed, and edited Johnny Ghost asks her audience to think about memory and memorialization, all the ways in which memory journeys with us and is (re)invented through our acts of remembrance and commemoration. We are invited to pursue these questions by observing Millicent, a middle-aged music instructor who has a memory she is trying to forget and a tattoo memorial that she is attempting to remove. It is Millicent’s struggle to negotiate the boundaries and connections between memory and memorial that became—at least for me—the central conflict of the film and the reason Johnny Ghost resonated so strongly with me.
A quick confession: I’ve never been a particular fan of ghost movies. Maybe it was growing up with a father who firmly believed that Halloween was an invention born out of a secret allegiance between candy companies and dentists or maybe it’s just my own innate cynicism, but I’ve rarely found movies about the supernatural to be compelling. It has been my opinion that many films in this genre (or, at least those I’ve been exposed to) lack a message that is relatable and that offers its audience new perspectives on what it means to be human and live as a human being in this world. What I think is brilliant about Johnny Ghost, however, is the way the ghosts of this film are not supernatural spirits from beyond the grave but, rather, personifications of the spirits of memory from Millicent’s conscious and subconscious mind. And just as the ghosts of the movies I grew up with could be summoned by repeating a chant, performing a ritual, or touching an amulet, the ghosts of Millicent’s past are conjured through music, conversation, and—most noticeably—that old tattoo. Making the ghost in Johnny Ghost a memory from Millicent’s past instead of an apparition from the spirit world gives McRae the ability to speak about the human experience in profound and innovative ways.
The drama and intrigue of Johnny Ghost is enhanced by McRae’s editing and well-crafted plot. We meet Millicent as she’s entering into a small break from teaching during which she plans to get a tattoo removed. While she’s preparing to do so, however, she continues having flashbacks from her past. The film transports the audience back and forth through time, with each flashback to the past revealing more details about the significance and story behind the tattoo. The viewer experiences the tension that Millicent experiences—never knowing when a flashback will occur or where a ghost from the past may be hiding. The film builds to a climax as Millicent is forced to confront painful memories from the past.
The vast majority of the time, I found this plot sequence to be both horrifying (there was a constant state of nervousness, of not knowing what would happen next) and thrilling (always wanting to be given the next clue to the mystery of Millicent’s tattoo). There were, however, moments in the film that I found less compelling. I felt there was a level of abstractness to the film that never fully materialized. There were a number of symbolic moments that were repeated frequently throughout. At the beginning we watch Millicent as she gets her tattoo. While this is happening, the shots revert back and forth to figurines that, we later find out, have a prominent place in Millicent’s house. During other scenes filmed in Millicent’s home, the camera will occasionally go back and focus on these figurines for a few moments before returning to the source of action in the scene. While McRae did a great job of tying up many of these loose ends, I never felt like I understood the story behind those figurines. While I appreciate films that make me think and ask questions, the mystery behind these elements was such that I felt like there was an underlying layer of the film that was inaccessible to me, resulting in a viewing experience that was at times alienating over absorbing.
These alienating moments, however, were minor issues in a film that otherwise had me totally engrossed in Millicent’s haunting (in many senses of the word) past. The film makes you asks new questions and gives you a new framework by which to rethink the boundary between the past and present, the living and dead, and the memory of an event and the way that event is memorialized. Johnny Ghost is haunting, not just because it draws in the idea of spirits from the past, but because of the way it invokes the realm of remembrance that, in some way, haunts us all.
Anni Finsterer’s excellent portrayal of Millicent’s journey brings believability and tension to the story. The film uses its black and white images to deepen themes of ambiguity, making an ironic statement about similarity and contrast. In Millicent’s world, where so little about her past and her present are distinctly “black-and-white,” the viewer is asked to view her life through a black-and-white filter. One of the prime ambiguities are the identities of Millicent’s “ghosts.” While the audience knows that they are Millicent’s old band members from her days in the post punk culture of Melbourne, it is only at the end of the film that their identity is revealed and Millicent’s relationship to them is uncovered. As the audience is kept in the dark about Millicent’s past and maintains uncertainty about Millicent’s future, McRae is consciously conjuring up the theme of nihilism, an ideological principle held by the post-punk culture Johnny Ghost invokes. It is this balance between knowing and not knowing, seeing and not seeing, defining and not defining, that makes Johnny Ghost a true thriller.