Nov 16, 2012

UNSUNG HORRORS: THE FIRST POWER

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. Robert Resnikoff
1990
Orion Pictures
United States

I struggled with whether or not to include this particular entry of Unsung Horrors for a long time. It’s a movie that I have unashamedly loved since I was very young (as it was one that used to run near-constantly on what eventually became the CW). The reason I struggled with it is because no one ever talks about it. Not critics, not horror sites, and not even like-minded, casual film geeks. It’s almost like a phantom – some forgotten tome from the very early '90s that may have gotten lost in the so-called listless decade in which people seem to think nothing notable in the horror genre was released. Because of that, it’s hard to gauge if The First Power needs to be defended (It Ain’t That Bad) or rightfully praised (Unsung Horrors). But then there’s another problem. I have no objectivity because I’ve been watching this thing since before my ability to detect quality over something I merely like was refined. (And there is a difference between liking a film and said film actually being good.) So, is The First Power a good movie? I honestly can’t say. It does, after all, star Lou Diamond Phillips, who somewhere after Young Guns became kind of a walking punch line. And it does contain immortal serial killers, psychics, and cats eating pizza.

In the interest of remaining optimistic, I think it’s fair to include it here. Those who disagree can sound off below.

Lou Diamond Phillips plays Russell Logan, a Los Angeles detective who specializes in tracking serial killers. His latest target is Patrick Channing, aka The Pentagram Killer (Jeff Kober, most recently of “Sons of Anarchy” fame). He likes to kidnap girls and carve pentagrams on their bodies while wearing his creepy face mask and saying prayers in reverse. A routine stake-out in hopes of capturing Channing ends with the attack of a female detective, and Logan pursues the killer, getting stabbed like crazy town in the process and left severely injured. Still, Channing is arrested and put to death for his crimes.

Time passes, Logan recovers from his wounds, and everyone celebrates Channing's demise, including Logan. But then he receives a phone call from the mysterious woman who has been assisting all along with the investigation. Turns out Logan has gone back on his word, breaking the agreement that had been forged between them – she would continue providing Logan with information to help catch Channing only if he promised that he would be taken alive, and would not be put to death. (Oops.) Turns out, Channing’s reign of terror is only just beginning. With his spirit freed from his corporeal body, Channing now has the uncanny ability to body jump from host to host and cause all manner of havoc.


Tess Seaton (Tracy Griffith, of Sleepaway Camp 3!) plays a psychic (aka the mysterious woman) who makes a damn good living as such. Logan hunts Tess down after the body of that female detective who had been earlier attacked by Channing is found covered in Channing-style knife graffiti. At first assuming Tess must be in on it, Logan begins to slowly believe in the “other” world that allows such things as the psychic powers Tess possesses, or the abilities that allow Channing to do what he is doing.  

Along for the ride (for better or worse) is Logan’s partner, Ollie Franklin (probably the most popular and recognizable character actor of all time, Mykelti Williamson, responsible for Bubba in Forrest Gump, among many, many others). His screen time is unfortunately limited, but he manages to slip in at least one "kiss my black ass," which I believe was a requirement in every cop procedural movie featuring a black actor made during the 1990s.

I love The First Power, first and foremost and above all else, because it’s creepy.  It’s a combination of several horror staples – serial killers, the supernatural, and religious mythos.  It combines all of these in a (heh, I was about to say believable) clever manner and they work well enough together that they become believable (in a strictly cinematic sense). But it's also well aware of itself, and writer/director Robert Resnikoff is wise to inject a bit of humor into the story, both in dialogue and in circumstances. It's an interesting juxtaposition in that The First Power can be pretty grisly, eerie, and dark. But then it will take a break and let Logan or Tess or even Channing say or do something ridiculous that will let the air out of the powder keg a bit to settle things down. The use of humor is slight, but appreciated...until the third act, in which Channing possesses another character and goes ape shit inside Logan's car as he and Tess try to make a break for it. In this scene the puns fly fast and furious, and Channing goes from being a murderous, demonic killer to a huge pain in the ass.

Incidentally, this scene ends in a wicked car crash.

Full disclosure: The First Power is not perfect, is nowhere near it, and at times severely stretches the concept of disbelief. After all, what are you supposed to do when the killer rips a ceiling fan off the wall, separates it from its wires and power source, and still manages to turn the damn thing on and pursue our characters, anyway? Or how are you supposed to react when the climax of the film, which takes place in a sewer, involves a gigantic vat of acid that’s there for some reason?

Because The First Power wants you to be be thrilled as well as have fun. As "no shit" as it may sound, The First Power knows it's a movie. ("No shit!") It exists entirely within the world of cinema, and so tropes we've come to easily accept in more traditional cop-hunting-a-killer movies are gleefully included here, like the hard-drinking loose-cannon detective, the killer with a gimmick, and the out-of-nowhere love interest. But that's all okay, because it works just fine.

There is no better scene in the film that more aptly sets the tone than the one which takes place in the third act. Sister Marguerite, a minor character vital to the conflict, has a deep seated knowledge and obsession with the world of cults and devil worship, so much that she is chided and considered an outcast at her convent. Logan begs for her help and Sister Marguerite soberly agrees. For Logan's reference, she recites the three powers (backwards for some reason): the third power is the ability to possess other human beings; the second power is the ability to tell the future; and the first power is resurrection. Marguerite believes the Devil himself has granted Channing the first power, and only one thing will stop him. She goes to a cabinet and retrieves an ancient looking crucifix. She holds it, almost as if in awe...and then this happens:

"Mind if I ventilate?"

And the reason I say this is a perfect summation is because The First Power is not here to make you think. It's not here to stoically depict a battle of good and evil a la The Omen. It's not here to test your faith like The Exorcist. It's not here to present you with a existential battle for the soul. The First Power wants to fucking stab the killer to death with a God knife.

And I am totally fine with that.

Appropriately, this snippet from Vincent Canby’s New York Times review made me laugh, even though it’s knocking the very movie I am praising:
The action is fairly constant and some of the special effects are good, but the whole thing is seriously stupid. A rational thought is as fatal to this movie as the crucifix (which hides a knife) is to the changeable Patrick Channing.
To really enjoy what's at the core of The First Power, you’re supposed to push all that aforementioned cheese aside and remember the really eerie moments instead, like when Channing, being pursued through a church after having taken over the body of a priest, stands on top of the benediction table at the altar and mocks the Christ crucifixion; or his creepy reiteration of “see you around, buddy boy” at several key moments; or even the incredibly impressive (and very real) stunt in which a man jumps five stories off a building, lands on his feet on solid concrete, and then walks away – all in one shot.

Lou Diamond Phillips turns in a very Lou Diamond Phillips performance. The actor has always been good, but beyond La Bamba, he’s never really been a part of any film responsible for critical acclaim. And like many other actors of his ilk, a few poor choices and a few stinkers at the box office left him with a near non-career, relegated to small indie productions or direct-to-video oddities (like another underrated little yarn called Route 666, about – wait for it – ghost/zombie prison chain-gang road workers).

Plus his wife left him for another woman, and that just has to suck.

Still, I like LDP as an actor, and it’d be nice to see him getting a bit more exposure. Some A-list actors deserve to disappear into obscurity (looking at you, LaBeouf) whereas others deserve to be rescued from it. All LDP needs is a Tarantino or Nolan-esque revival to grant the man the resurgence he deserves.

In The First Power, he is luckily playing a cinematic cop, for if this were real life, he would be the worst cop ever: he drinks, he can barely fight, he forces civilians on deadly car chases. He breaks into the homes of persons of interest, no warrant on-hand. He even has a shoebox of explosives just sitting around his apartment, filled with grenades, wires, and all kinds of boomy things. "A buddy on the bomb squad gave me this stuff for a rainy day," he explains, like this is the most normal and ethical thing in the world.

But who cares, right? God knife.

Jeff Kober as Patrick Channing is a big damn creep. He looks creepy, sounds creepy, and plays a very convincing deviant murderer. Somewhere in the world he is saying, “hey, thanks!” His isn't a career I've necessarily followed over the years, but after seeing him pop up in episodes of "The X-Files" and "The Shield," I always say, "Hey, it's that guy!"

Writer/director Robert Resnikoff has nearly no career to speak of beyond this. Funny, being that the The First Power doubled its budget during its theatrical run (according to IMDB). Even the biggest turkeys lead to more work for their directors, so long as the money rolled in (see Michael Bay’s entire career). But The First Power is Resnikoff’s sole feature credit as a director, and one of four where he served as writer. That’s kind of a damn shame, for the skills he showed behind the camera for this particular film would definitely have led me into seeking out more of his genre work. He stages several thrilling sequences, including the aforementioned church scene, or the horse-led stagecoach race through the city streets. Special mention must be made of the scene in which the body of a detective is discovered crucified and hung impossibly high off the ground under a bridge. The shot begins in a car-propelled push through a dark tunnel and ends with a sweeping shot to the mangled cop, and it's an effective introduction to the madness Channing will wreak upon those who tried to stop him the first time. Like action director John McTiernan, Resnikoff likes to shoot the eerier focal points of his scene from the protagonists' point of view. We, the audience, don't have the kind of omniscient view that we often do; instead, we see what Logan sees, or Tess sees. Some of creepiest things we see Channing do are shot very far off; one would think that might subdue the power of whatever nasty or fucked-up thing Channing's doing, but, very much the opposite. And given the kind of John Carpenter's The Thing-type identity paranoia that's present here, that's definitely an appropriate choice.

Speaking of Carpenter, composer Stewart Copeland turns in a nice subdued version of a Carpenter score, borrowing the style, but choosing to let the music complement a scene instead of assault the audience's senses with it. Additionally, the sea of demonic whispering and laughter that washes across various scenes featuring Channing are incredibly creepy and effective, especially when layered over the previously mentioned scene of Channing's mock crucifixion.

The First Power is the best definition of “turn your mind off” entertainment that I can think of. It doesn’t demand all that much of you, and thematically, there’s not all that much going on. For a movie about God and the Devil, it doesn't have much to say about either, other than: God good, Devil bad. But thrilling it is, creepy it is, and you’ll never be bored. Blood flies (as do homeless women), and not everyone makes it out alive.

The end of the film teases a sequel, and it’s one I would have enthusiastically watched. Unfortunately it never happened – likely because Robert Resnikoff got on a rocket ship and blasted off to space after finishing this film, as he never made another feature,

To close, I say again: The First Power is an enjoyable film. Is it good? I honestly don’t know. I’d argue that Friday the 13th: Part VII–The New Blood is a good film because I loved it when I was eight years old, and that love has been grandfathered into my more particular adulthood.

Unsurprisingly, the no-frills MGM DVD is out of print. Somewhat cheap copies can be snagged from Amazon, and I can only imagine Netflix has it available on disc. Give it a watch and see what you think – I’d be curious how first-time viewers react.

See you around, buddy boy.

1 comment:

  1. nice review! do you know where is location of logan's apartment in los angeles?

    ReplyDelete