Revenge films have been around for a very long time; one can look to The Virgin Spring (1960), Straw Dogs (1971), or Death Wish (1974) for their rise from serious drama to movies of a more exploitive nature. Psychic Killer (1975) adds a unique twist to the tale by having astral projection as a means to the violent ends. Quirky and laden with creative deaths, it very much embraces its weirdness, providing a fun carpet ride for the whole family (at least according to its mind-boggling PG rating).
Released stateside in December by Avco Embassy Pictures, Psychic Killer, aka The Kirlian Force, only cost $250,000 and came and went like a phantom in the night. Critics paid it no mind either, and it was relegated to video store shelves and gas station rentals. On the surface, that’s understandable; a B cast with a former actor turned fairly unproven B director (Ray Danton – Deathmaster), and a script co-written by a B-movie maestro (Greydon Clark – Satan’s Cheerleaders). And yet, somehow Psychic Killer pulls it together into one wild, trippy thriller.
Arnold Masters (Jim Hutton – Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) is screaming, upset at the world. Why? Well, he’s locked up in a prison-run mental institution for starters. Falsely accused of murdering the doctor who wouldn’t treat his sick mother because she couldn’t pay for an operation, Arnold loses it completely when he finds out mom dies while he’s detained, because services supposedly offered to her were not provided. Distraught, he meets Emilio (the amazingly named Stack Pierce – Vice Squad), a fellow inmate who tells Arnold he uses astral projection to avenge those who’ve wronged his family, right before he makes a break for it and leaves Arnold his magical amulet in his will. Arnold is found innocent of his crime, and heads for the outside world to right all the wrongs set upon him.
One by one, Arnold knocks off those responsible for his imprisonment; judges, cops, negligent nurses, and even a butcher played by Neville Brand for chrissakes are all fodder for Arnold’s armchair revenge, as he sits, sleeps, and drifts to the scene of the crime. His concerned prison psychiatrist, Dr. Scott (Julie Adams – Creature from the Black Lagoon) aides the police led by Lt. Morgan (Paul Burke – Valley of the Dolls) as they start to suspect that Arnold is somehow, in some way, responsible. But how will they prove it, and can they stop his vengeful spirit spree?
Debuting a year before The Omen, and 25 years before Final Destination, Psychic Killer offers up a lot of creative carnage for a PG movie, including: a sentient showerhead, a proper Brand Butchering, car crashes and a molted, evolving (or is that devolving?) Hutton. Once again, the MPAA went on an extended lunch break; a revealing shower scene and the meat market massacre (premiering at Cannes next year!) provide more than you should be paying for. Now, you wouldn’t know it from the presentation; Danton’s visual acumen lies somewhere between episodes of Barnaby Jones and The Love Boat, but the story is so ambitious that you won’t ever feel wanting for a commercial break that isn’t coming.
The only astral projection that I knew in entertainment growing up was the Doctor Strange comic book, and certainly Hutton could pass for heroic, with his soothing baritone and tall frame. But Arnold possesses a tenuous grasp on reality at best, and Hutton’s growing, trembling exasperation is a delight to watch. His interactions with Burke are cat-and-mouse exchanges, but one isn’t sure who’s who in the equation; the script stops to contemplate life’s foibles; whether it’s the sweet romance between Burke and Adams (grownups finding love? Stop it!), or Arnold’s sense of devastating loss, there are things to bite into here besides car crashes, late-night spectral visions, and Road Runner-inspired deaths (for real)—although I wouldn’t blame anyone for just wallowing in, and counting off, the unique ways that Arnold finds retribution.
But in the end, is it ultimately quite silly? Of course. There’s no science to explain how Arnold does it; no thought-out exposition detailing the process, or scenes showing him practicing. Think of it as a demented Doctor Strange without the trip to the Himalayas and you’re halfway there (on a 200th of the budget). On the other hand, why do we need to know how, anyway? He has a magic amulet and his spirit teleports. We’re not watching Nova here.
A quarter of a million isn’t going to get you Chuck Heston; that wouldn’t even get you Bill Shatner. However, what it does get you is the best of the underbelly Bs. Aldo Ray. Whit Bissell. Brand. Della Reese. Burke. Unique presences that always elevate a film (and a mood) with turns that do not succumb to subtlety; nor should they in a film two steps away from flying carpets or mystic realms. No, the flights of fancy are grounded by the performances of Adams and Hutton, who are both terrific.
A long way from Universal’s back lot swamps, Adams provides painless exposition as well as anyone, and her romance with Burke has a refreshingly mature quality that steers clear of the leers. (You still have your shower scene, calm down.) But as far as I’m concerned, Hutton is the MVP. Brought up as a teen idol in the early ’60s and groomed to be the next affable Jimmy Stewart, it just never happened for him. A pity, too; his likeability is off the charts, and there’s a sadness to Arnold that’s quite touching. He died four years later of liver cancer and didn’t receive the second half of his career that he deserved.
Psychic Killer never got the chance to find an audience. The premise is too weird for a revenge film and too esoteric to hook in the horror crowd; it’s drifted, disembodied between both worlds for decades now. I suppose it’s up to those willing to put on the amulet and bring it back down to earth. It’s definitely worth the magic carpet ride.
Psychic Killer is available on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: WOLFEN (1981)