Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Don't even think it

The received wisdom on Ray Danton's PSYCHIC KILLER (1975) is that it's good for ironic yuks only. A sleazy horror thriller that got the jump on CARRIE (1976) by a year (of course, Stephen King's source novel had been spinning in the revolving racks of airport kiosks since 1974), it's peopled with a roster of Hollywood has-beens (Julie Adams, Whit Bissell, Aldo Ray, Rod Cameron, Neville Brand), is shot in grainy, one-take verite, and features the last cinema performance by Jim Hutton, who would die tragically of cancer in 1979. I know I'm supposed to groove to the wall-to-wall kitsch, but the thing just makes me so goddamn sad.

Jim Hutton is an interesting case study. As the father of the Academy Award-winning Timothy Hutton, he's often credited with being a better actor than he was but an end-to-end examination of his career shows an intriguing unevenness. A discovery of Douglas Sirk, Hutton brought a charming light comic presence in such films as WHERE THE BOYS ARE (1960), WALK DON'T RUN (1966) and WHO'S MINDING THE MINT (1967) and seemed at the time an heir to the James Stewart school of folksy, awkward leading men banking true inner fire. He was an amusing book smart foil for Charlton Heston's acerbic MAJOR DUNDEE (1965) and a surrogate son to John Wayne in THE GREEN BERETS (1968) and HELLFIGHTERS (1968)...

...but he seemed to have trouble making the transition between the end of the studio era and the dawn of the New Hollywood. Although he had a perpetually youthful aspect, there was something rigid about Hutton, who also seemed to force his speaking voice a couple of octaves lower than it was. Later on, he could turn in a wooden performance if his heart wasn't in it. His work in TV showed trademark panache (particularly on his woefully short-lived ELLERY QUEEN series, in which he capped each episode by turning to the camera and saying "I know who did it... but do you?") but still seemed a sad comedown. PSYCHIC KILLER was not only Hutton's last theatrical release but his only one in the last ten years of his life.

Filmed under the title THE KIRLIAN FORCE by former actor (THE LEGS DIAMOND STORY, Jess Franco's LUCKY THE INSCRUTABLE) Ray Danton (who also directed DEATHMASTER and narrates here), PSYCHIC KILLER begins in medias res, with Hutton's storky Arnold Masters suffering a freakout in a rundown psychiatric clinic overseen by sympathetic but essentially useless psychiatrist Julia Adams (at the time Mrs. Ray Danton). It seems he has been wrongly institutionalized for the murder of the doctor who had been attending his elderly mother and who died under mysterious circumstances. During his confinement, Arnold's mother has died, mostly from neglect, causing the inmate to nurse a lingering hatred that must lay coiled until he makes the acquaintance of voodoo master Emilio (Stack Pierce, a former major league baseball player who parlayed his striking physical presence into a spate of memorable character parts in such films as COOL BREEZE, VICE SQUAD and GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) and learns the voodoo practice of astral projection.

When he is cleared of blame for the crime he didn't commit, Arnold returns to society and a very dusty old house to settle his score with those who wronged him: doctor Whit Bissell (Julie Adams' CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON costar), nurse Mary Charlotte Wilcox (John Ashley's leading lady in THE BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT), butcher Neville Brand (with better hair than in EATEN ALIVE) and cop Greydon Clark (who co-wrote the script with Mike Angel, of THE LOVE BUTCHER infamy), among others.

Able to commit murder by remote control, Arnold rains punishment down on the names on his Shit List in the form of backfiring shotgun, overheated shower, runaway car, falling concrete block and, in the film's grisliest scene, a butcher shop full of cutting tools that come to life at just the wrong moment for poor Neville Brand...

... who will never lay his thumb on the meat scale again. Of course, once the bodies start stacking up, cops Paul Burke (who receives first billing, for some reason that eludes me, and dresses throughout like a Vladivostok pimp) and Aldo Ray (turning in a humorous and nicely nuanced sidebar performance as Burke's gruff partner) quickly suss out the common denominator and lean on Arnold's doctor to gain insight into his reclusive character.

Patient-doctor privilege be damned, pour a magnum of Giacobazzi down this bitch's gullet and she's a veritable Deep Throat, spilling the beans on Arnold's fragile psychological state, his anger issues, his Mother fixation, you name it. And to top it off, she puts out! I know that this is where Danton, Clark and Angel are doing their level best to up the exploitation angle with added sexuality (although Burke and Adams' canoodling is strictly under the covers) but PSYCHIC KILLER's second act is like watching your parents get drunk in the afternoon. It's dreary and sad and it makes you feel lonely, which is kind of what the film is all about.

Like Norman Bates and Carrie White, Arnold Masters is a societal outcast and, perhaps more importantly, a virgin. Virgin characters are interesting because, despite their perceived purity and lack of corruption, they nonetheless carry the knowledge of sex, of sin and corruption. They know what they're missing, if in the fleshy broad strokes more than the moist, thumpy particulars, and that only serves to isolate them more, like beggars at the feast, driving them into the escape of fantasy, both benign and malignant.

What's interesting about PSYCHIC KILLER is that the characters are, to a man, middle aged or older. Jim Hutton was in his mid-40s, Burke and Adams pushing 50, and everybody else approaching retirement age or (like Whit Bissell and Rod Cameron) well past it. (The exceptions are Wilcox and Clark, both in their early 30s at the time and dispensed with in short order.) An aura of past glory and missed opportunities haunt the film, suffusing the proceedings with a hint of sadness even as the murder setpieces become more and more outlandish. Certainly, past glory must have been on the minds of all involved as they cashed this easy paycheck... but that they may have been slumming (except for Aldo Ray, who was rarely at the time in anything this good) doesn't mitigate the prevailing notes of redundancy and melancholia. PSYCHIC KILLER would make an interesting double bill with 4-D MAN (1959), Irvin Yeaworth's quieter, more cerebral follow-up to THE BLOB (1958), in which Robert Lansing plays another societal ill-fit (a scientist, too brainy for his own good) who is similarly able to transcend the physical world and ends up, as does Hutton here, agonizing over a woman he can't have, white-haired and more than literally beyond the pale.

These people couldn't have known that imminent blockbusters like JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977) and HALLOWEEN (1978) were going to change the shape (heh) of American cinema and not only alter the American movie-going demographic but also the kinds of people allowed to appear in movies, and that their services would no longer be required except for the sake of nostalgia. In a meta sense, no one gets out of this thing alive. In a more literal sense, PSYCHIC KILLER is the story of a man lashing out at a world denying him a life he deserves without realizing he is, for all intents and purposes, already dead.


OCKerouac said...

I am consistantly awed by your ability to build insightful reviews that far exceed the entertainment value of their subject matter... Yet another Arbogast gem plucked from a dung-heap of a film...

Tim Lucas said...

"PSYCHIC KILLER's second act is like watching your parents get drunk in the afternoon" -- perfect!

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

This is no understatement -- this is, by far, the finest, most acute and perceptive piece you've ever written, Arbo. I thank you for cheering me in an ironically "dreary, sad and lonely" time for me. The film has always been a favorite of mine (I saw it on a double with The Premonition - in between which was a trailer for The Omen, sporting a PG rating!)and has been on DESTRUCTIBLE MAN's list of dummy-deaths to-be-discussed for a while. Now I'll have to nudge it way up on the queue. Bless you for your articulate and poignant preamble.

Given to HYPERBOLE! said...

My biggest problem with the picture (aside from those second act longueurs) was its pronounced inconsistency of tone. I agree with your precise assessment of the despair at hand, but doesn`t the film, by design, kind of beg for the detachment of "ìronic yuks only"?

Elseways, what's an audience to make of the decidedly jaunty lilt of the bits between the hits? Wilcox's low-rent, fish-eye burlesque, the operatic dago shuffle and the meaty minstrel stylings of Brand and Della Reese?

Each of these episodes are played so broadly they kind of scuttle the ship in the other regard. It`s a little hard to look beyond the `paycheque matinee' aspect of the proceedings when Danton doesn't seem to care enough to decide which movie he's making.

I don't remember enough about DEATHMASTER to suggest whether or not this lack of throughline could be seen as characteristic of Danton's other work behind the camera. Perhaps the fact that PSYCHIC KILLER was co-written by two other people (among them co-star Graydon Clark, whose own filmography as a writer/director is kinda littered with movies possessing the same scattershot tonalities) might account for the disparity.

It's a bit of a shame because in addition to the creep of desperation there are effective moments on display. Genuine grace notes like Hutton's appearance in the rear-view of Clark's speeding car, his sitting quietly isolated in that spartan hardwood room. The Thing Discharged from the Darkthroated Yawn of the backroom of Brand's butcher shop and Hutton's startling decomposition in the final scenes.

Each of those moments put me in mind of Bob Clark's DEAD OF NIGHT, made kinda-sorta concurrently with PK, but with an obviously more textual, far more effective treatment of the same haunting themes.

Or something.

It's a weird bird, this one.

Anywhoo, I'll gladly jump on the "great, thoughtful post" bandwagon; thanks for keeping me thinking.


ARBOGAST said...

Absolutely, Psychic Killer has it coming... but there's just stuff in there that I can't write off. No, I don't think we can make a case for Ray Danton as an auteur... he was a hireling, plain and simple, and I think he just went for whatever mood/tone he could squeeze out of a scene with nary a concern as to how they knitted together. But I think horror is the one genre where the less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts big picture can be overlooked in favor of those parts... or even just (and I apologize in advance) sum of them.

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

Not to sound condescending or patronizing...but exploitation cinema was never intended to be an auteur's domain. It has become one in retrospect, due mainly to the fact that many strong-visioned directors managed to get jobs making them and recently have had their work recognized. The fact that Psychic Killer is uneven in tone is not by-and-large some sort of mistake -- it's entirely even in it's balance between the ironically sleazy and the seriously disturbing. This is what makes the film stand apart from the wholly anonymous style of most recent horror films. I can't agree at all with the assessment that PK is a minor achievement just because of it's budget or level of craft or intention of product. PK is memorable and profoundly affecting because it is what it is, not for what we expect all films to be. Why must films like PK be deemed a guilty pleasure? I am more ashamed to admit I enjoy most Godard films than I am a Ray Danton flick.

ARBOGAST said...

Not to sound condescending or patronizing

... or didactic or facetious! Which you don't.

Given to HYPERBOLE! said...

The fact that Psychic Killer is uneven in tone is not by-and-large some sort of mistake -- it's entirely even in it's balance between the ironically sleazy and the seriously disturbing.

Well, in theory, sure. I never meant to suggest the uneveness is a mistake, and I don't specifically dislike uneven tone -- quite the opposite, in fact.

I was likely unclear, but I think PK comes up short in the execution, where the 'nonsense bits' (which I personally appreciated) simply don't seem made with the same kind of skill that the rest of the movie displays. Would that they were -- I'd like to appreciate it even more!

My point was to address Arbogast's suggestion about the "received wisdom" on PK being "for ironic yuks only." That reception makes sense, doesn't it? Because the casual, disinterested viewer is expecting a straighlaced conventional thriller and is instead peppered with all this goofy shit.

Bad for the casual, disinterested viewer; far more interesting and rewarding for me. And youze guys, as it turns out. Hurray, us! For what it's worth, I never feel quilty about liking certain movies, and I'd like to think we're all on the same page regarding the "big picture" aspect of why we keep returning to the genre.

It's why I personally find more value in something like PK or ... hell, I don't know, MANSION OF THE DOOMED, even, than any current contemporary horror franchise I can imagine. But that's why we watch them all anyway, isn't it? To ferret out the tiniest frissons in the face of overwhelming sameness and disappointment? After all these years?


ARBOGAST said...

Funny you should mention Mansion of the Doomed because I thought of it while watching this again. Both films share that inescapable sense of doom and sadness that is often the result of an ultra low budget combined with a Hollywood setting. That gap between the dream deferred and the nightmare realized yawns as a proper abyss should.

Phil Menard said...

American Films and TV series/movies of the 1970s are full of goofy death scenes, often filmed for maximum irony. From Night Gallery to Fogs, Arnold and various Movie-of-the-Week outings. It practically defines 70s genre output. Maybe that's why Halloween and Friday the 13th were so welcomed. Sure, there's irony there too, but it's got a neat nasty streak that we hadn't seen before.

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...


Marty McKee said...

I've read this before, but I don't think Stack Pierce ever played in the major leagues. Or, at least, not as "Stack Pierce" or even with the name "Pierce." It's possible he was a minor leaguer.

ARBOGAST said...

I've read he was recruited as an All City player to the Cleveland Indians, and then was sold to the Milwaukee Braves, playing until 1960. But hey, it's not like I was there, cheering him on.

Fred said...

Marty looks to be right. The baseball-reference website only lists one player named Pierce during the period in question, All Star lefty Billy Pierce who looked nothing like Stack, and whose career started in '45, 2 years before Jackie Robinson broke the Color Barrier. In addition, the IMDB posting on Stack lists him as playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that didn't come into existence until 1970, when the Seattle Pilots switched cities in the midst of Spring Training. This looks like another bit of Internet apocrypha.

ARBOGAST said...

The source I read (not the IMDb) stated Pierce was sold to the Milwaukee Braves... but of course I can't account for his name not showing up on the team registers from that time.

Given to HYPERBOLE! said...

Just last night, Stack Pierce became the unofficial Special Guest Star of my past week's viewing. First in PK, then turning up in a blink-and-miss-it silent cameo in WARGAMES, finally as a distracted flatfoot in the Season One wrapup of THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO.

He played baseball in none of these.

(Though perhaps he originally did in WARGAMES -- seems like there must be some missing footage there. Why cast those mellifluous pipes if all yer gonna do is have him pooch out his lower lip to frown at a passing motorcade?)

That gap between the dream deferred and the nightmare realized yawns as a proper abyss should.

Leave it to you to put that blissfully fine a point on it. I'd put titles like SCREAM BLOODY MURDER and WARLOCK MOON in the same file folder. The simmering creep of madness is always just below the surface of a wooden doorjamb painted over three times too often.

That's why your blog (smooch, smooch!) and something like Stephen Thrower's NIGHTMARE USA provide such welcome respite; you've clearly refined the art of how these movies can occasionally be more seriously considered for what's effective about them, beyond the "Bellbottom Rotary Sideburns LOL" dismissal titles of this stripe too often receive.


ARBOGAST said...

Oh, yeah, Scream Bloody Murder - Venice Beach is such a perfect seedy backdrop for a descent into the maelstrom. It looked best in Night Tide but elsewhere (The Glove, Track of the Vampire) and here it's just tacky and depressing. I did like, though, in Scream Bloody Murder when our hookhanded anti-hero passed a marquee announcing The Omega Man.

ARBOGAST said...

Oh, and a good Stack Pierce cameo is in Vice Squad, where he sells a car to Wings Hauser with the immortal line "Fifty dollars don't get you no El Dorada" or something like that.