Although they were only around for around thirteen fleeting years, AVCO Embassy certainly left their mark on American cinema. Jumping freely from directorís cinema like Polanskiís What? and Nicholsí Carnal Knowledge to horror flicks like Phantasm and The Fog, they were as versatile as they were prolific. Averaging around 10 films a year, theyíd crank Ďem out the grindhouse way, tapping into all the popular genres, from possession to kung fu. The only thing is, unlike most grindhouse outfits, they actually had a pretty consistent quality track record. It didnít matter if it was high brow or low brow, they delivered entertainment in equal measure. Here to test that theory is one of their more obscure horror titles from the time, Psychic Killer. Letís see whatís up in that head of old Arnold Masters.
After a forced mental ward action sequence to deliver that typical AVCO kicker, we walk through the prison courtyard with the mild mannered Arnold Masters (Jim Hutton father of Timothy and lead in the loved TV movie Donít Be Afraid of the Dark). Arnold was wrongfully imprisoned when he confronted a doctor for not operating on his ailing mother and he later turned up dead. So too his mother, and Arnoldís held a quiet grudge ever since. Bringing the grudge back to the surface is one of his cellmates Ė an African American with a panache for voodoo. Emilio (Retired professional baseball player Stack Pierce) has been drumming up voodoo spells to righteously punish the pimp who turned his daughter into a prostitute. He assures Arnie that, the day after he kills the pimp heíll die, and that the day after that heíll help Arnie get his revenge!
When Emilio jumps from the barbed wire fence to his death, Arnold is left with all his belongings Ė including the pendant that gave Emilio his voodoo powers. Arnold brandishes the silver necklace, and after the headaches subside the bodycount begins to rise. First on the chopping block is the doctor who testified against him. Next up, the nurse. So the chain goes on, as Arnold telepathically starts to payback all the people who caused him and his mother suffering. Through his mind he kills his victims in elaborate ways, forcing their cars to speed off cliffs, the water to burn through the flesh during the shower or the hand to grind itself in the meat grinder. Arnold is pissed!
Trying to figure out all these seemingly incidental accidents is Leiutenant Morgan (Paul Burke). He quickly figures out the connections between Arnoldís release and the deaths of those who helped put him in the pen in the first place. He enlists in the help of some psychiatrists, including Dr. Laura Scott (Julie Adams), who worked previously with Arnold. Arnold knows heís being watched, but he himself canít help watching with lust as Dr. Scott gets ever closer. He begins to fantasize, and with his condition those thoughts could very well become a reality. For many, a deadly reality.
Psychic Killer certainly delivers on its titular premise, making up for a no frills style with a seasoned cast of cult favorites. Directed by Studio era leading man Ray Danton, the connection no doubt paid off with a cast of both distinguished has-beens and a few would-bes. Best of all is Mary Wilcox, the striking Canadian blonde bombshell from Love Me Deadly, again here stripping taboo as she sexually teases an elderly, catatonic man. Her short death is a welcome perk, as is soon to be Eaten Alive crazy Neville Brandís bit with a meat grinder. Whit Bissell previously lead Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Julie Adams was Dennis Hopperís brief muse a few years earlier in his Easy Rider follow-up flop, The Last Movie. You would have seen Rod Cameron, Nehemiah Persoff and in classical Hollywood fare, and Judith Brown in some of those Corman women in cages flicks. Rounding off the ďwhoís that?Ē cast is Della Reese, who would go on to great success in the Touched by an Angel series but here amusingly showing no shame talkiní jive about cashing meal tickets.
Filmed in 1974, thereís a fair bit of racial political incorrectness, from Reeseís stereotypical welfare portrait to Emilioís even more offensive ooga booga mysticism that introduces voodoo to the plot. Arnoldís in for trying to help his mother, and Emlioís in for killing his daughter for being a whore. Thatís balance for you! More than just the filmís portrait of America is dated though Ė it has that simplified, almost elementary approach to storytelling. The plot, which is basically setup, murder, murder, detective, murder, love interest, murder, murder, death, certainly wonít win any awards, but in these days of complex psychological plotting and non-linear structures, sometimes simple says it best.
The death scenes are orchestrated fairly well, and they more predict Final Destination than they do Carrie (like Dark Sky would want you to believe). Other than maybe the end, there is hardly any time spent within the mind, itís more just hot water taps turning on their own or gas pedals pushing in themselves. Neville Brandís bout in the meat freezer is probably the best. Thereís a pretty serviceable explanation for all the voodoo stuff too, so the movie definitely doesnít suffer in the suspension of disbelief department. In the end though, it just has that AVCO straightforwardness Ė earnest and always aiming to entertain, it does nothing but get the job done. Basically, if you like the high concept, youíll like the film. Another check on the AVCO hit list.
Dark Sky presents Psychic Killer in a nice 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer encoded in progressive scan. The print used is a release print, complete with cigarette burns and a flickering background, and most of the problems with this transfer fall with the source. Other than a few shots with light leek and some debris throughout though, itís a fine transfer. There are frequent moments of detailed clarity, evident in some of the close-ups taken for this review. Colors are mostly saturated, with an organic brown and green sort of palette. Itís an old film, but Dark Sky has accurately preserved its aesthetic.
English mono only, and it has a little background hiss, but is for the most part clean. There arenít any dropouts or clipping, and all dialogue remains very clear. Itís a pretty barren track effects and music wise, but hey, thatís no fault to Dark Sky.
Three cheesy TV spots and a grindhouse-era trailer are all thatís included, and probably all thatís deserved considering how most of the fine cast is either dead or reclusive at this point.
Psychic Killer is Final Destination in the hands of a voodoo wielding Bad Ronald. It wonít win points for complexity, but it delivers the goods complete with a distinguished cult cast. The image is very good, especially considering it is culled from a release print. Same goes with the sound. The supplements are basically barren, but for the cheap price tag and the grindhouse thrills, that shouldnít matter much. I predicted yet another solid horror entry from AVCO Embassy and the prediction held true. Does that make me psychic too?
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