Twenty-five years ago, Rudolf van den Berg's thriller The Johnsons was released in the Netherlands, which was remarkable in several ways. For starters, it was a horror film and we don't make too many of those over here. But even stranger were the budget and production values attached to the film: an at the time unheard of two-and-a-half million Euro (or, as the Euro didn't exist yet, nearly 5 million Dutch Guilders).
In The Johnsons, a septuplet of boys grow up as murdering psychopaths, possessed by a South American demon. To fulfill his prophecy, the boys need to impregnate their sister, so she shall give birth to a monster who will plunge the world into eternal darkness.
On their 21st birthday, the seven brothers escape from their asylum in the Netherlands. As they start hunting the poor girl, they are chased by the police and a cultural anthropologist, who are baffled by the sudden spree of brutal cult-like killings. Will the Johnsons be stopped in time to prevent the end of the world?
Part drama, part supernatural thriller, part monster movie, and part slasher, how did such a... a high-end GENRE film came to be in the Netherlands, in the early nineties? What was everyone involved thinking? And what happened afterwards? Driven by these questions, filmmakers Bram Roza and Yfke van Berckelaer interviewed the cast and crew of The Johnsons, and unearthed the film's bizarre making-of stories and earlier script versions. Together they have made the documentary Xangadix Lives! about all this, and it saw its world premiere last weekend, followed by a rare 35mm screening of its subject The Johnsons.
Confession time: I had never seen The Johnsons. I knew of the film, but twenty-five years ago I loathed Dutch cinema with a passion, and while I was curious, I was never quite curious enough to seek it out. As such I was a bit apprehensive about seeing Xangadix Lives! first, before The Johnsons. I need not have worried though, as the documentary is great on its own. And while it spoils bits and pieces of its subject, it also heightens the anticipation and appreciation.
Xangadix Lives! is part homage, part making-of, and in part a critical view at how a New York-based hillbilly slasher starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed (as an inbred ogre out for revenge) turned into a Dutch end-of-the-world creature feature.
The documentary points out several of the film's good points, but doesn't shy away from having fun with the bad ones. Brought in on the production of The Johnsons as a sudden replacement director, Rudolf van den Berg was never interested in making a genre-classic, and approached his film as a straight drama. While that accounts for the uncommonly good acting in the film, it also creates some hilarious juxtapositions with the story's 'schlockier' aspects. Just wait till you see the (literally) blood-drenched finale which could have come straight out of an eighties Hong Kong horror film.
With everyone interviewed in Xangadix Lives! having the benefit of a quarter century of hindsight and healing, the recollections are mostly fond. Nobody is afraid to speak their mind anymore though, and as a result the stories are often laugh-out-loud funny. Aided by some fantastic editing, the interviews never turn into a dull talking heads affair, and a wealth of film clips, design art, and cuttings assure there is always something interesting to look at.
In the group of people I saw it with, there were fans of The Johnsons, there were people who knew about The Johnsons but had never seen it (like me), and even some who had never heard of The Johnsons until this documentary got made (like my wife). And everyone loved Xangadix Lives! It's the strongest compliment I can give it.
Do check this out if you have the chance. If you have even the slightest interest in genre cinema, this documentary will bring a big smile to your face.
Xangadix Lives! will be shown again on December 4th, in Eye Amsterdam, with some of the creators, cast and crew of The Johnsons present.
(Note-slash-disclaimer: I know some of the filmmakers involved, and have supported their project through crowdfunding. As such my name can be found on the end credits under "Thank You". However, I will in no way, shape or form be impacted by any financial failures or successes of this film. Take that as you will.)