Dark Sky Films // 1975 // 90 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // December 1st, 2008
He can think of 1,000 ways to kill you.
Poor Arnold Masters. All he was trying to do was get some help for his poor, sickly mother when fortune frowned on him, and he wound up being accused and convicted of murdering her doctor. Of course he didn't do it, but since he's a gangly, skittish, and inarticulate, and had been seen verbally berating the man, he's the logical choice to send up. While he's imprisoned, his mother is mistreated by every care provider on the planet and dies, making Arnold go more bonkers.
He befriends another bonkers inmate, this one locked up for killing his own daughter -- she'd become "a whore," and it was a question of honor, you see. Seizing the opportunity to clear up some exposition questions, the men exchange stories, and Arnold's new friend promises to help Arnold with his problem, which, besides wrongful incarceration, involves getting back at the slimeballs who've ruined his life.
When his new friend scales a barbed wire fence and jumps to his death, Arnold's luck starts to change. He's released from prison, and his new friend has bequeathed him a mysterious amulet that allows Arnold to fall into a death-like sleep and astrally project his vengeful spirit to cause horrifying death to all who wronged him and his mom.
This causes no end of headaches for Police Lt. Morgan (Paul Burke, Valley of the Dolls), who deduces -- fairly quickly -- that these seemingly random deaths are all connected to Arnold and, therefore, he must be responsible. But Arnold isn't there when the deaths occur. This logic doesn't faze Morgan, who incurs Arnold's wrath when he beds the magic loon's psychiatrist and secret crush, the matronly yet lovely Dr. Laura Scott (Julie Adams, Creature from the Black Lagoon).
Psychic Killer is a big wedge of '70's cheese, a step or two up from TV fare like Satan's School for Girls, with only a bit of nudity and some not terribly explicit violence to earn it a theatrical release ahead of its inevitable late-night TV run. The plot's outlandish, the tech is low, and the cast list is like a call sheet for Murder, She Wrote.
Director Ray Danton -- himself a TV-heavy actor (and husband of Julie Adams) -- clearly had something deeper and more terrifying in mind than what appears in the finished product. The film was originally called "The Kirlian Effect" -- as a matter of fact, the title card at the beginning with the name Psychic Killer is different from the other credits and looks like it was inserted at the last minute.
Danton stops everything cold at one point for a professor of parapsychology (played by TV-staple Nehemiah Persoff) to deliver a lecture on auras, energy forces, and all things Kirlian. Despite this electrifying scene, which makes the shrink's explanation at the end of Psycho seem sly and subtle, the focus really is less on science, para or otherwise, than it is on outlandish murders.
The script, by Danton, Greydon Clark (Satan's Cheerleaders), and Mikel Angel (Grotesque), is logic-proof. Since it's Arnold's spirit causing all the brouhaha, there are unbridled powers at work, so we get cars, showerheads, and deli meat slicers with minds of their own taking down unsuspecting but unscrupulous victims. We also get little set-ups to establish the dastardly characters of the victims. Danton makes these into little comic interludes, and they kind of work in that bad '70's way. There's a trashy blonde nurse (and our requisite breast shot) who suffers a scalding, an opera-singing lawyer crushed by his own excesses, and a bizarre playlet with Della Reese as a food stamp recipient who bickers with a doomed butcher.
As silly as these scenes are, they actually help keep the film afloat, since the leading actors are pretty somnambulant. As Arnold, light-comedy leading man and future Ellery Queen portrayer Jim Hutton seems to think that speaking in slow, measured tones makes him more sinister. It doesn't. It just makes him a big, lanky guy who speaks in slow, measured tones. While it's funny seeing Burke and Adams go all middle-aged crazy and horn-dog romantic, it's painful watching them try to conjure up some interest in their characters.
The transfer is not so hot, with a fair amount of nicks, scratches, and reel change marks. The mono audio track does the job, but not much else. The viewing experience here is akin to watching an episode of Kojak, but that's OK, it just kind of fits in with the whole Psychic Killer experience. The only extras are a trailer and TV spots for the film, which revealed -- much to my surprise -- that this rather sordid little affair had a PG rating.
Far from being a classic, Psychic Killer is one of those films I'd never heard of and would likely never have seen, but I'm glad it's on DVD. Big dumb fun, '70s-style.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* TV Spots
* Kirlian Research Network