Plot: teen girl and her mother are beset by seven homicidal psychopaths.
The year is 1992. Horror was in a completely different place and had become an entirely different beast upon the dawning of the new decade. The once-flourishing Italian horror industry had gone all but extinct, the Spanish fantaterror would not make a comeback until Álex de la Iglesia’s The Day Of the Beast (1995), and in France it would take until the tall end of the decade’s second half before returning with Two Orphan Vampires (1997). In America The Craft (1996) and its junky imitations kept the genre afloat until Scream (1996) reimagined the tired (and tiring) slasher of the prior decade. The Netherlands hadn’t partaken in the zombie and slasher craze of the eighties. Now that the wave for both had crested Intensive Care (1991) was poised to set the Netherlands on the international horror map. It did, but probably not in the way the producers/director intended. Instead it turned into a massive critical – and commercial misfire. If there ever was a time to turn Dutch horror into something cerebral and atmospheric, that time was now. To everybody’s surprise this horror attracted a healthy 200.000 attendees and was a critical darling on film festivals across the world. Not bad. Not bad at all. And the feature to do that? De Johnsons (The Johnsons, internationally) or the project that everybody had given up upon.
The basis for The Johnsons was conceived at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1988 where actor, producer, and director Roy Frumkes was employed as a teacher. Frumkes had gained notoriety with his documentary Document Of the Dead (1980) that offered an extensive and highly-detailed look behind-the-scenes during the production of George A. Romero’s zombie epic Dawn Of the Dead (1978). With his own Crystal Plumage Films Frumkes would write, produce, direct and act in Street Trash (1987). In his screenwriting class Frumkes had two students, the American Rocco Simonelli and Dutchman Richard Abram. Abram’s father invested $100,000 and set up the R.A. Film Marketing Projects development company with the idea of developing two scripts the men were working on. Simonelli, the star pupil of Frumkes’ screenwriting class, was developing two scripts with his teacher. One was the raw urban drama The Substitute, the other the occult horror The Johnson-Blues that had grown out of an earlier draft called The Jackson White. After spending a year Stateside Abram was forced to return to the Netherlands. R.A. Film Marketing Projects was dissolved and the assets were divided equal. Frumkes and Simonelli retained the rights to The Substitute and Abram got to keep The Johnson-Blues. Frumkes would bring his own script to the screen as the solid The Substitute (1997) (with Tom Berenger). Five years prior Abram returned to the Netherlands to produce The Johnsons-Blues.
With an estimated budget of 5 million gulden and director Ruud van Hemert – a lovable eccentric prone to exageration and known to push his actors to the limit to get the performances he wanted – attached to direct with Liz Snoyink starring in what was shaping up to be the Netherland’s most expensive horror production up that point. Van Hemert had directed the black comedies Darlings! (1984), the sequel Hitting the Fan! (1986) and the raunchy sex comedy Honeybun (1988) (with Nada van Nie) but after a spat with producers Chris Brouwer and Haig Balian he was let go. Inheriting the project was Rudolf van den Berg, a specialist of thoughtful and socially aware dramas and documentary maker for the VPRO channel, a director for the elite and the intelligentsia. Van den Berg recruited Leon de Winter to rewrite the script to their liking. Kees Beentjes had some involvement with these rewrites, although the extend of his involvement has never been fully disclosed. The specialized (and general) press had nothing but scorn and derision for a director just trying to make a living and he was chewed out accordingly. How scandalous was it that the man behind Bastille (1984), Looking for Eileen (1987), and the Gerard Reve adaptation Evenings (1989) was lowering himself to the populist muck of horror. Now starring were Monique van de Ven from the early Paul Verhoeven features Turkish Delight (1973) and Katie Tippel (1975) as well as other Dutch classics as Burning Love (1983), The Assault (1986), Amsterdamned (1988), and The Discovery of Heaven (2001). Co-starring would be 18-year-old Esmée de la Bretonière - a debutante and starlet that would build an extensive career on the small – and big screen and model from time to time, including for Playboy (September 2003). Also present is Johan Leysen, he of The Girl with the Red Hair (1981) and Desiring Julia (1986) (with Serena Grandi).
1971. Esteemed American surgeon Dr. Johnson (Rodney Beddall) has just delivered a septuplet via a Caesarian section. Having no knowledge of their biological lineage nor their miraculous conception the hospital simply decides to call them The Johnsons. Upon driving home the doctor is overcome by some strange malevolent force, stops his car near a local marshland and starts to engage in a strange summoning nocturnal. 1978. In a high-security prison complex the genetically similar 7-year-old Johnson septuplet inexplicably slaughter 16 of their fellow inmates adorning the walls with strange blood-drawn symbols leaving authorities and law enforcement clueless. 1992. Victoria Lucas (Monique van de Ven) is a freelance photographer who just captured the mayor (Carol van Herwijnen) in an embarassing moment during a wage strike of the municipal garbage collectors. Her photo is such a rousing success that Lucas is commissioned by National Geographic to photograph a rare bird known as the night heron in the marshes of Biesbosch. At the same time Victoria’s 14-year-old daughter Emalee (Esmée de la Bretonière, as Esmee de la Bretonière) is suffering from recurring nightmares. In a frightening vision she finds herself sexually assaulted by seven virile men wearing nothing but full-head clay masks in some bizarre ritual. Making things worse is that Emalee’s nightmares act as a precursor to her first period. Victoria figures that taking Emalee with her to Biesbosch will be the change of scenery she needs.
Winston Keller (Kenneth Herdigein) is a fellow at the university and professor of anthropology. He’s an an ardent proponent of rationalism, empiricism and the scientific method and in his latest intervention he has to protect his superstitious father (Otto Sterman) from the latest batch of disgruntled clientele to whom he sold Winti “charms”. On the way home Keller the younger stops by at the university where his assistant Angela (Olga Zuiderhoek) informs them of their latest donation. They are shown footage of the 1934 expedition of Henri Vidal-Naquet and his time living among the Mahxitu Indians of the Amazon who worship the crystal-encased embryonic entity Xangadix. The tribe spoke of an ancient prophecy of seven brothers in full-head clay masks who will bring out the Eternal Night by impregnating one of their own. Having barely collected his wits Keller is hurried into a vehicle by government spook De Graaf (Rik van Uffelen) who requires his expertise for business he has in Biesbosch. The facility where seven brothers, all aged 21, have been staying is about to close down and Major Jansma (Johan Leysen) has no idea what to do with them. When Keller learns that The Johnsons were the first to be conceived by in vitro fertilisation from eggs clandestinely donated by an unknown orphan some twenty-one years earlier, it’s just the question whether Winston will be in time to save Victoria and Emalee from their murderous offspring.
While van den Berg approached The Johnsons as “a job” he made sure to give it his own touch. He rewrote the original Rocco Simonelli screenplay together with Leon de Winter keeping the original story’s skeleton, lead characters, and overall structure the two completely rewrote it otherwise. Adding themes of anthropology, taboo sexuality (incest), religious allusions, and ancient fertility rites The Johnsons transformed from a pretty basic The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House Of the Left (1972) derivate into a full-blown occult horror. Being a specialist of dramas and human interest documentaries van den Berg ensured that the mother-daughter and brother-sister relations were properly explored and expanded upon. Since a bit of money was being thrown at The Johnsons director of photography Theo Bierkens was able to line up a number of artsy, atmospheric scenes of both the demon entity Xangadix as well as leading ladies Monique van de Ven and Esmée de la Bretonière. The special effects are actually pretty decent. Of those Sjoerd Didden had worked the year before on the disasterpiece Intensive Care (1991) while Floris Schuller, Andy Taylor, and Casper Lailey have become beloved Hollywood craftsmen in the decades since. Ben Zuydwijk meanwhile has been and remains steadily employed as a production designer. Van de Ven has since described The Johnsons as a weird outlier in her repertoire and for la de la Bretonière it was the ideal springboard to launch a model – and singing career.
It’s a strange fate that befell The Johnsons. On the one hand this was a prestigious project that forever enshrined the Netherlands in the annals of world horror cinema while on the other hand it was misunderstood, undervalued, and laughed off the screen when it originally saw release. Director Rudolf van den Berg never attested that he was attempting anything more than a decent, atmospheric fright flick. No, credit should go to writer Leon de Winter for imbuing The Johnsons with rich symbolism and allusions to religion, superstition, and the levels of perception. The father-and-son Keller subplot is rife with the merits of different perspectives and the duality of man. It deals with everything from science vs faith, of conservatism vs progressivism, and superstition vs facts. The Johnsons is far more ambitious than your average horror romp and many of its ideas are genuinely begging to be further explored. In more recent years the Xangadix Lives! (2017) retrospective documentary has taken a deep dive into the history, the mechanics behind the scenes, and the legacy of The Johnsons. More importantly, The Johnsons was never tainted or diluted by a raft of unnecessary and redundant sequels.