May 13, 2019

The X-Man meets the Puppetoons

Poster - The Power (1968)
Now Playing: The Power (1968)

Pros: Features an interesting cast of veteran character actors and B movie regulars; Ambitiously tries to marry the sci-fi and suspense-thriller genres.
Cons: Slow stretches and plot holes dissipate the suspense somewhat.
“Do we humans harbor within us vast mental powers beyond our imagination? Are some of us gifted with psychic abilities far beyond the norm, and if so what does that mean for us as a society? Whether one believes in extra sensory perception, mental powers, or any of the phenomena that go with them, some governments of the world have certainly at some point or another taken notice to entertain the idea. After all, wouldn’t such amazing abilities be useful for warfare or intelligence gathering? Governments around the world have long sought to try and harness the untapped powers of the human mind to mixed results…” (Brent Swancer, “Bizarre Government Experiments and Strange Psychic Powers,” Mysteriousuniverse.org, Nov. 17, 2017)
In his fascinating article for the Mysterious Universe website, Brent Swancer details a kind of international arms race that few Americans are aware of -- the race to harness psychic abilities for national security purposes. In the 1970s, U.S. authorities became concerned about Soviet research into these areas, and thus was born the Stargate Project, which recruited psychics to, among other things, surveil human targets and facilities through “remote viewing.”

Before the unit was shut down in the mid-90s, it also experimented with less benign applications of psychic powers, including the possibility of slowing or even stopping a heartbeat with the mind alone. The project was profiled in a 2004 book by Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was adapted into a movie starring George Clooney in 2009.

Stopping a person’s vital bodily functions through telekinesis is at the heart (pun intended) of producer George Pal’s The Power. Based on the 1959 science fiction novel by Frank M. Robinson, the film opens at a research facility specializing in space medicine (in this case, a government sponsored institute, not the military).

Arthur Nordlund (Michael Rennie) has been sent from Washington to liaise with a group of scientists conducting research into the limits of human endurance. Their research is crucial to ensuring the health and safety astronauts on long space missions. The head of the committee, Prof. Jim Tanner (George Hamilton) takes Nordlund on a tour of the facility, where he sees one volunteer in scuba gear lying at the bottom of a water tank, and another being subjected to intense heat.

Michael Rennie and George Hamilton in The Power (1968)
Prof. Tanner shows Nordlund his patented body tanning method.
Nordlund attends a meeting of the full committee, which is comprised of experts in all disciplines related to human performance: Dr. Margery Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette) is a geneticist, Prof. Talbot Scott (Earl Holliman) is a biologist, chain-smoking Carl Melnicker (Nehemiah Persoff) is a physicist, and Prof. Norman Van Zandt (Richard Carlson) heads up the institute.

There is a lot of brainpower on the committee, but the members are startled when the token social scientist in the group, anthropologist Henry Hallson (Arthur O’Connell), announces in alarmed tones that, based on anonymous questionnaires and tests he’s given to his fellow committee members, one of the group has an IQ that is “off the charts,” and possesses “a force of intellect far beyond anything known on the earth today.”

When Nordlund asks if that could include paranormal or telekinetic mental powers, Hallson responds in the affirmative. Nordlund proposes a test for the committee to take right then and there, to see if the super-man (or woman) among them will reveal him/herself. Melnicker works up a makeshift pinwheel with a pencil and piece of paper and sets it in the middle of the table. If there is a telekinetic mutant among them, it should be no problem for the person to set the paper spinning through just the force of mind.

After a couple of abortive attempts, the group around the table all stare intently at the pinwheel, and sure enough, the paper begins turning by itself as ominous music swells.

Testing for telekinetic powers at the committee meeting
Scientists at America's elite space research institute play Spin the Paper.

The scientists are spooked at the thought that a telekinetic-capable superhuman is walking among them. Things take a much darker turn when Tanner and Lansing discover Hallson dead in the cabin of the institute’s experimental centrifuge. Alerted by Hallson’s wife (Yvonne De Carlo) that he had not come home, the two had gone to the institute looking for the professor, only to discover the centrifuge whirling around at top speed. Mysteriously, the emergency kill switch didn’t work, and by the time they managed to cut power to the entire facility, Hallson was dead, crushed by the tremendous G forces generated by the contraption.

The only clue that Tanner finds among Hallson’s effects is a name, Adam Hart, scribbled on a piece of paper. Tanner immediately becomes a prime suspect in Hallson’s death when his widow inexplicably tells the police she did not call Tanner to check in on her husband. The hot water he’s in gets even hotter when the police inspector (Gary Merrill) informs him that there is no record of his attending any of the universities listed on his resume.

Mystified and alarmed, Tanner decides to do some investigating himself. When he learns that Adam Hart was a childhood friend of Hallson’s, he drives out to the remote desert town that was Hallson’s boyhood home. Things get even weirder when Hallson’s father and other town members give wildly different descriptions of Adam Hart’s physical appearance.

Another boyhood friend of Hallson’s and Hart’s, Bruce (Aldo Ray), tells Tanner that he has something to show him that will reveal much more about the mystery man. When Bruce drives him out to the middle of the desert, Tanner senses that something’s off, and jumps out of the jeep. He seeks shelter in a patch of scrub brush and palm trees, but then quickly realizes he’s smack in the middle of an Air Force gunnery range -- and a squadron of jets is firing live rockets at him. He manages to light some brush on fire to get attention and the pilots abort the exercise.

Tanner (George Hamilton) runs from strafing air force jets
George Hamilton hopes with all his heart that
his film doesn't bomb at the box office.
When Bruce later admits that Hart had commanded him to kill anyone looking into his past, Tanner gets a healthy appreciation of the extent of the man's powers. Once back home, Tanner not only has to deal with a faceless psychic superman who apparently wants him dead, but also with his paranoid colleagues who think he might be the superpsychic killer.

As a sci-fi-based psychological/suspense thriller, The Power is an interesting product of its time. The idea of a genetic mutant masquerading as a government scientist and playing with normal humans like a cat toying with a mouse, seems emblematic, if in an unconscious way, of an era of mind-expanding psychedelic drugs and distrust of government authorities over the Vietnam war. (A couple of years before, Star Trek had featured a similar “monster” in the form of Charlie X, an orphaned human teenager who had learned fearsome telekinetic powers from the aliens who raised him.)

However, the film struggles somewhat under the weight of its ambitious premise. In the original novel, the protagonist’s investigations gradually uncover the mutant’s backstory and the extent of his powers. The movie’s 108 minute runtime doesn’t afford this luxury, so the viewer has to use his/her imagination to fill in plot holes and inconsistencies. For example, if Hallson’s boyhood friend Adam Hart is the culprit, how can he hide out at institute in plain sight, so to speak, without Hallson recognizing him? (The inability of Adam Hart’s hometown neighbors to agree on what he looked like is perhaps a clue.)

As the cat-and-mouse game begins in earnest, Tanner witnesses all sorts manifestations of the faceless Hart’s powers. At a crosswalk on a busy city street, Tanner watches as the Don’t Walk pedestrian sign suddenly morphs into an ominous message - “Don’t Run.” In another George Pal-esque scene, the weary Tanner stops momentarily at a toy store window, where to his amazement, a squad of tin soldiers become animated, line up, and shoot their toy guns at him. (This was a knowing wink to Pal’s early career as the creator and animator of stop-motion “Puppetoons” -- many of them depicting classic fairy tales -- that he did in the 1940s.)

The tin soldier sequence in The Power (1968)
Attack of the Puppetoons!
The game becomes potentially deadlier as Tanner stumbles aboard a kids’ merry-go-round at a downtown galleria. Before he knows it, the merry-go-round is whipping around at such great speed that Tanner’s facial muscles are pushed back by the G-forces, echoing the deadly centrifuge ride that killed Hallson earlier on. It’s a nice touch, having these seemingly innocent children’s amusements turned into weapons by the remorseless psi-chopath. Another nice touch is the overlay of a beating heart on the soundtrack as Hart hones in on his prey. It’s an eerie reminder that he can stop a human heart with just his mind.

Against the backdrop of these incredible powers, it’s perhaps a stretch when Tanner, on the run and with Lansing and the physicist Melnicker in tow, decides that the safest hiding place is among the teeming crowds of the big city. They crash a salesmen’s convention at a hotel, and additionally, Tanner warns his colleagues not to sleep. A scene in which they nervously keep watch as the clueless conventioneers dance awkwardly at an after hours party goes on way too long, especially for a scene that doesn’t make much sense. From what we (and Tanner) know of Hart, it should be no problem for him to get to the hapless scientists, regardless of whether they're asleep or awake, or in a big crowd or by themselves.

Some of the film’s logical lapses are explained by the twist ending, but not all. However, the end is punctuated by an hallucinatory, psychedelic montage that allows Pal to indulge in more of his beloved stop-motion animation.

Tanner (George Hamilton) is roasted in The Power's climatic psychedlic montage.
"Holy smokes! I turned the tanning bed up way too high!"

Many of the film’s production staff and cast were no strangers to sci-fi. The Power was the next to last feature film produced by Pal, whose resume was brimming with such classics as When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and The Time Machine (1960), among others. Director Byron Haskin had previously helmed War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space (1955) for Pal, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars in 1964.

Richard Carlson was a sci-fi fixture, having appeared in such classics as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and It Came from Outer Space (1953); he had even directed his own sci-fi feature, Riders to the Stars (1954) around the same time as those films.

Earl Holliman had the distinction of appearing in the one of the all-time great sci-fi films, Forbidden Planet (1956), as well as the inaugural episode of The Twilight Zone TV series in 1959. And of course, Michael Rennie will be forever known as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Veteran character actors Arthur O’Connell, Nehemiah Persoff, Yvonne DeCarlo, Gary Merrill and Aldo Ray are also welcome familiar faces, but the small roles don’t take advantage of their respective talents.

Suzanne Pleshette as Dr. Margery Lansing in The Power (1968)
Dr. Lansing suddenly remembers that
she left the oven on at home.
Leads George Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette do a credible job looking attractive and registering shock and horror at the appropriate points. Even at this relatively early stage of his career, everyone’s favorite Crispy Colonel was exhibiting the beginnings of the preternatural tan that was to become his signature.

One of the biggest “stars” of The Power is the atmospheric musical score by 3-time Oscar winner Miklós Rózsa. The main theme features a cimbalom, a kind of dulcimer that is played by striking strings with light hammers. The result is eerie and otherworldly. I remember getting a little chill hearing it the first time, and it worked its magic again with the latest viewing.

The Power is one of George Pal’s forgotten sci-fi features. It has minimal special effects, relying instead on generating suspense via a mysterious unseen menace. It has slow moments and logic lapses, but it’s worth looking up for its unique story, good cast, and great score.

Where to find it: Purchase the Warner Archive DVD at fine online outlets like Oldies.com.

May 1, 2019

Stream and Stream Again: Special May Day Edition

Spring is here. There’s a better than even chance that the sun is shining where you are; nature is blooming (time to stock up on the allergy meds); and at least for a brief moment, hope and renewal (along with pollen) waft on warm breezes.

We don’t really do May Day here in the States, what with its commie-hippie-fertility-tree-worshipping vibe that’s so at odds with our dog-eat-dog capitalism. Elsewhere, the old Soviet military parades are gone, but much of the world still recognizes it as International Workers Day, where workers of the world unite to binge on Game of Thrones and the latest Marvel blockbusters. There are even a few odd Europeans and Brits left who celebrate by dressing up and dancing around the maypole.

The maypole scene from The Wicker Man (1973)
"Okay kids, enough of this fresh air, let's go binge on
episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch!"
We’ve dispensed with the old Pagan maypole streamers in favor of net streams, but the dance is still the same -- we frolic around the great megalithic entertainment monolith, tied to it by our multiple streams, forever chasing after that elusive content that’s just one more subscription away.

Many of us have cut the cable and satellite TV cords, only to become entangled in a new Gordian knot of subscription streaming services. The cost of each by itself is reasonable, but put all of them together to get your Star Trek Discovery here, Game of Thrones there, and the Marvel Comics Universe behind the Disney paywall, and suddenly you’ve become nostalgic for the old cable bill.

Of course it all makes sense from the corporate monolith’s perspective. Why sell or rent your precious commodity one at a time when you can rope your customers into ongoing, monthly payments? Corporate suits are burning the midnight oil thinking of new recurring ways to separate us from our money: razors, clothes, food, you name it. “I’m sorry sir, that apple is not for individual sale, but I’d be happy to sign you up for our Apple of the Month Club.”

While the Fruit of the Month Club may be an easy pass, they really have us by the short hairs when it comes to our pop culture addictions. Disney is the new 800 pound gorilla in the streaming wars, pulling their content from other platforms to offer exclusively on their own service. The announced $6.99 per month cost is low compared to Netflix and other services, but it will be interesting to see if that price holds once they corral all their hottest properties -- Star Wars, the MCU, Pixar, etc. -- behind their paywall.

Even with its attractive entry price, I won’t be signing up for Disney’s streaming channel anytime soon. Because I’m a cheap old coot, I’m trying to hold the line at my outrageously expensive internet plan and the two streaming behemoths I’ve had for years now, Netflix (which just raised its rates again, daggummit!) and Amazon Prime.

Soviet leaders review a Victory Day parade, circa 1960s
The CEOs of Disney, Netflix, Amazon and Comcast wave approvingly
as their weapons of mass distraction parade by the reviewing stand.
Of course, Netflix has been moving in recent years from an emphasis on theatrical movies to original content and TV. I’ve sampled some of their original stuff, and overall it’s pretty mediocre. Every time they hike their rates I think about dropping it, but it has some shows my wife and I like, so I grin and bear it (yeah Netflix, you’re smiling now, but one more price hike, and you’ll be sorry!)

Amazon Prime is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates -- you never know what you’re going to get. B movie fans like myself can have quite a bit fun browsing through its catalog. Right now my watchlist is teeming with titles that are good candidates for the blog: Attack of the Mushroom People, Blood of the Vampire, Cry of the Banshee, Fire Maidens of Outer Space, Frankenstein’s Daughter, Invisible Invaders, Pharaoh’s Curse… it’s an embarrassment of B riches (or for some, just an embarrassment). Some of those licenses will expire, and other vintage Bs will take their place. The biggest downside is the queasy feeling I sometimes get paying dues to the online empire of the world’s richest, greediest man.

At least I summoned up the fortitude some time ago to cut the cable TV cord. We’d been bouncing between cable and satellite for years, shelling out for frequent rate hikes, tolerating poor signals and even poorer customer service, and marvelling, like millions before us, that there could be so many channels and so little to watch.

When we moved to a larger metro area, we finally cut and ran. I invested in an indoor digital antenna and a DVR for over-the-air broadcasts. In our location, the setup brings in not only the usual network channels and local news, but dozens of other channels as well. Fortunately for my interests, many of these are retro channels, including MeTV (with the beloved Svengoolie on Saturday nights), the Movies! channel, Comet, Decades, This-TV and many more. (A small downside is that occasionally the antenna needs to be adjusted to optimize the signal for certain channels. I have it hanging from a curtain rod, where it’s easy to move it back and forth to clear up the signal.)

The Citadel from Game of Thrones
Public libraries are a beacon of hope for all
those oppressed by high entertainment bills.
Another huge free resource is the local public library system. Again, living in a large city helps tremendously. Among all the branches, they get almost every title that anyone would want to watch on DVD, including blockbusters, foreign and independent films, and TV. If your local branch doesn’t carry it, you just put a hold on the title and it usually shows up within a couple days. We recently caught up with Game of Thrones by binging on library copies.

A big “secret” that people are finally discovering is that many libraries offer robust, free streaming services. Hoopla, a big player in the public library market, offers popular feature films and documentaries to stream, along with online courses and ebooks. Typically, each library card holder gets a limited number of views per month (but hey, it’s free!).

Our system also offers Kanopy, which has also been big in the higher education streaming market. Kanopy has a rich catalog of independent, foreign, classic and documentary films. For a relatively high-brow service, it also carries a surprising number of classic and B horror and sci-fi films. For example, my current Kanopy watchlist includes I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Blood Beast Terror (with Peter Cushing), the Eurohorror classic Night of the Devils, and Sudden Fear (with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance). Like Hoopla, it’s a certain-number-of-views per month deal.

So, there are alternatives to selling your first born and your right arm for access to the movies and shows you love. Check out the local OTA broadcast situation and your local library. You may be able to stream and stream again without your wallet screaming “Uncle!”