Sunday, May 9, 2010

Psychic Killer (1975)

Arnold Masters (Jim Hutton) is a rather unlucky fellow. He's been put into a mental institution for killing the doctor who didn't want to operate on his sick mother because they were too poor, a crime he says he didn't commit, and is now in the process of truly losing his mind. That his mother died of her illness surely doesn't help matters.

He develops a friendship with another inmate who really did kill someone (charmingly enough his own daughter, for being a prostitute), but who likes train spotting and feeling self-righteous. Arnold's new friend seems to be in the magic business, somehow manages to kill his daughter's pimp from inside the institution and then commits suicide. He leaves everything he owns to Arnold. Among his possessions is a peculiar amulet that induces a death-like state in Arnold, which nearly gets him autopsied. Arnold's lucky, though, and wakes up alive again before he can be opened up. Shortly thereafter, someone (who knows who) confesses to the murder Arnold always insisted he didn't commit, opening the way for Arnold's return to freedom.

Arnold returns to his mother's house and spends most of his time sitting in a chair, using the powers of the magic amulet for revenge. The amulet gives him the ability to leave his body behind and kill the people he holds responsible for his mother's demise and his own incarceration in various nasty telekinetic ways.

The investigating cop, Lieutenant Morgan (Paul Burke) and his partner Aldo Ray are fastly homing in on Arnold as their main suspect, but can't prove anything. Only when Morgan gets in touch with Arnold's former psychiatrist Doctor Scott (Julie Adams) and she later contacts a parapsychologist friend of hers (Nehemiah Persoff), the case begins to become clearer to him.

Psychic Killer is a very peculiar film. One third TV horror movie-like snoozefest, one third weird comedy and one third the skewed and strange kind of horror typical of local independent productions of its time, watching the film is a rather schizophrenic experience.

Ray Danton's direction is often rather static and rambling, and it is therefore not much of a surprise that this is the director's last feature film before he began a long and not particularly interesting career in episodic TV. Going by filmographic details, I'd blame everything interesting about the film on Greydon Clark, one of the film's script writers (and one of its murder victims in a frightening non-acting turn), who'd later write and direct Satan's Cheerleaders and Wacko, among less noteworthy films.

As I said, parts of Psychic Killer are the usual, brownish-grey supernatural thriller hokum often seen in 70s TV, but there are a lot of very bizarre scenes that make up for it. Especially the murders and the situations surrounding them are fluctuating between silly and utterly insane. It's the details that make them so. The first murder, for example, starts off with a psychiatrist doing a bit of adultery with a decidedly younger female patient to whom he - while groping her breasts - explains that she is just living out her oedipal fantasies with him, before Arnold's spirit rudely interrupts with a killing. Or take the second murder - a nurse teases an immobile, dying patient with her dubious female charms, then decides to take a shower, does a more frightening than sexy striptease, only to finally get cooked by the shower for her transgressions.

It's not exactly tasteful, and filmed and acted in a way that makes me unsure if anybody beyond the writers was in on it being meant to be a joke; if in fact it was. Moments like these abound (watch out for the hobby opera singer death crush), and they are what make Psychic Killer quite a blast to watch.

What these moments, or the sprinkling of supposedly "funny" scenes that just aren't, don't produce is a very coherent film, or one that is able to frighten or scare a viewer. If Psychic Killer is horrific, than more through the peculiarly transgressive way in which it doesn't seem to be knowing what sort of film it wants to be when it grows up.

The actors are all over the place. Hutton plays Arnold serious and dramatic, while Burke starts out like a cop JJ Jameson, but dials it down the longer the film continues. Some of the comedic relief actors are just puzzling.

My personal explanation for the strange but glorious mess on display throughout the film is that Psychic Killer was initially written as a pure black comedy, but was turned into something of a straighter thriller by someone (director? producer? caterer?) who didn't get the joke, or just didn't want to get it. It's confusing, to be sure, but I like to be confused by the films I watch. It is usually much more entertaining than being bored by them.


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