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Long before horror author Stephen King created Carrie (1976) or director David Cronenberg invented a group of mutant telepaths known as Scanners (1981), fantasy filmmaker George Pal explored the unusual phenomenon known as "telekinesis," in his science fiction thriller, The Power (1968). Set in a research facility in Southern California, the story focuses on the members of the Human Endurance Committee, a group of scientists who are studying the body's capacity for pain in order to better prepare astronauts for space travel. At the head of the project is Dr. Tanner (George Hamilton), who is introduced at the beginning of the film subjecting paid subjects (college students) to tortuous sessions in the centrifuge (a centrifugal force apparatus) or experiments with heat, light and sensory deprivation. It soon emerges that someone within Dr. Tanner's gifted circle of scientists possesses extraordinary mental powers and begins to perform malevolent acts, starting with the murder of Dr. Hallson (Arthur O'Connell). As members of the committee are picked off one by one, suspicion falls on Dr. Tanner who is soon fired from his post and subjected to a full-scale investigation by Inspector Corlaine (Gary Merrill). Desperate to find the real perpetrator behind the murders, Tanner begins pursuing a shadowy suspect known as Adam Hart whom he methodically tracks down at the risk of his own life.
The Power bears Pal's distinctive love of the sci-fi genre, from the opening title sequence to the set design to the special effects, even though the film was actually directed by Byron Haskin, who had earlier collaborated with the producer on The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Naked Jungle (1954). Pal even pays tribute to his own Puppetoon creations from his Oscar-winning short subjects in a short homage (an army of tiny marching soldiers in a storefront toy store window fire their guns at George Hamilton). But unlike Pal's earlier, more family-friendly fantasies, The Power is his attempt to create a darker, more adult thriller with a pervasive sense of paranoia and amorality. The violence, though mild by today's standards, was a lot stronger than anything glimpsed in Pal's The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine (1960). Do we really need to see a close-up of O'Connell's corpse, bug-eyed and with his tongue hanging out, after being mix-mastered in the centrifuge? Heck, yeah! And there's also a delirious sequence with Hamilton on an out-of-control merry-go-round where he goes through a painful series of facial contortions. But the most disturbing scene is violence-free: a frisky convention girl (played by Miss Beverly Hills, aka Beverly Powers) tries to arouse the unconscious Dr. Melnicker (Nehemiah Persoff) after an all-night party by first stripping before him, then fondling him and finally planting a passionate kiss on his mouth only to realize she is making love to a dead man! The erotic overtones of several scenes are also unexpected for a George Pal film and include the lights-out lovemaking sequence between Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette, Yvonne De Carlo's attempted seduction of our hero in her trailer, and Barbara Nichols's tawdry roadhouse waitress.
All of these elements, however, don't mesh smoothly in The Power and it was not a success with critics or audiences. Part of the problem is the film's schizophrenic tone which veers wildly from light romantic comedy to murder mystery to science fiction thriller to outright weirdness (the brief interlude with the elderly couple in the desert seems like something out of a David Lynch movie). Yet, coincidentally, the film's unclassifiable nature is part of it's fascination. Miklos Rozsa's exotic score is certainly one of his best and highlights the cymbalon, an instrument which is used here as distinctively as composer Anton Karas used the zither in The Third Man (1949). The supporting cast is a virtual who's who of Hollywood character actors and provides a great deal of amusement for the movie buff. Earl Holliman as a scientist? Aldo Ray as a gas station attendant? Amateur cameraman turned variety host Ken Murray as an obnoxious conventioneer? And yes, that's Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher Forrest J. Ackerman in a tiny cameo.
Best of all, Pal achieves some wonderfully bizarre visual effects in The Power such as a hallucinatory freak out in which Hamilton observes his own disembodied head floating in space prior to its mutation into a grinning skull. As for the final sequence, a battle of wills between Hamilton and his nemesis, it obviously prefigures the dueling telepaths of David Cronenberg's Scanners. All in all, The Power is a quirky and imaginative entry in the sci-fi genre which remains Pal's most underrated film. Some enterprising Hollywood producer should snap up the rights to Frank M. Robinson's original novel and remake it.
Producer: George Pal
Director: Byron Haskin
Screenplay: John Gay, based on the novel by Frank M. Robinson
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Merrill Pye
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Editing: Thomas J. McCarthy
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: George Hamilton (Jim Tanner), Suzanne Pleshette (Margery Lansing), Richard Carlson (Prof. N. E. Van Zandt), Yvonne De Carlo (Sally Hallson), Arthur O'Connell (Henry Hallson), Gary Merrill (Mark Corlaine), Earl Holliman (Talbot Scott), Barbara Nichols (Flora), Aldo Ray (Bruce), Michael Rennie (Arthur Nordlund), Nehemiah Persoff (Carl Melnicker), Ken Murray (Grover).
C-109m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford