by Mel Valentin
Some genre films date poorly. Exhibit A: 1968's science-fiction/mystery/thriller, "The Power." Directed by Byron Haskin ("War of the Worlds," "Conquest of Space," "From the Earth to the Moon") and produced by George Pal ("War of the Worlds," "When Worlds Collide," "The Time Machine," "Seven Faces of Dr. Lao"), "The Power" focuses on then current socio-cultural obsessions with mental experiments, mind control, the next step in man's evolution, man and superman (yes, Nietzsche gets mentioned). Starting to sound familiar? It should. "The Power" will remind science fiction fans of the "Star Trek: The Original Series" pilot episode that starred William Shatner and featured Sally Kellerman and Gary Lockwood. The film isn't without its positives, from its well-paced B-plot, plethora of B-list actors (playing spot the B-actor is fun in itself), and the frequent cheesy moment. Just don't expect top-notch special effects or gripping set pieces. There aren't any.Let's start with the overly familiar storyline. Set in a California research laboratory, the Committee on Human Endurance (no joke) is headed by a too-young, too bland, and already too tanned George Hamilton. As the film opens, a visitor is given an introduction to the committee's work, the limits of human endurance and mind control. Some of these experiments include a man with SCUBA gear inside a green-colored water tank, another man hooked into a pain machine (inside a red room, of course), and another man in a darkened room being subjected to a piercing white light projected at his forehead. The key piece of equipment used by the committee (and for the film), however, is a NASA-type spinning centrifuge that can exert up to 10 Gs of gravity (according to the script, the average person will pass out at 5 Gs).
"Sci-fi/B-movie goodness from that golden decade for sci-fi, the 1960s."
Less important, apparently, than the committee's super secret work on super secret projects for the federal government is the discovery that one of the committee members has a supergenius IQ (and possibly other, as yet unknown, talents). Unfortunately, the IQ test is anonymous, making identity of the superman (or superwoman, but given that it's 1967, there's little doubt that we're talking about a superman here) of vital importance. From there, the storyline follows the attempts to uncover the identity of the superman and the killer (who may be one and the same). After the first murder, rendered subjectively (the audience slips into the victim's mind, as doors and walls disappear, accompanied by the sound of a beating heart), the narrative meanders from a murder mystery to a "wrong man" scenario (Hamilton on the run from the police while he attempts to discover the identity of the superman/killer). Unfortunately, due to budget limitations, we only get one subjective murder scene (others disappointingly occur off screen) and only one (wild) ride on the centrifuge. I expected the centrifuge to play a significant role in the climax. Alas, it didn't and my youthful memories were incorrect. Earlier in the film, however, Haskins rewards our patience with a homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train: a telekinetic attack on a spinning, out-of-control carousel.
For its B-level plot, The Power not surprisingly features B-level talent, especially in the acting department, from George Hamilton as the protagonist, the generically named Jim Tanner, to Suzanne Pleshette (The Birds, The Bob Newhart Show), to Earl Holliman (Forbidden Planet, TV's Police Woman), to Yvonne DeCarlo (The Munsters), Gary Merrill (Mysterious Island and innumerable portrayals of detectives on TV shows), Arthur O'Connell (Fantastic Voyage), Nehemiah Persoff (Some Like it Hot, special guest star on many television series from the 70s and 80s), Aldo Ray (The Naked and the Dead, Battle Cry), and saving the best for last, Michael Rennie (Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still).
A B-level plot and the aforementioned B-level talent also means a B-level budget. In this case, it's apparent from the first scene that budget limitations dictated a then-current TV-look (i.e., Star Trek: The Original Series) to the film: flat, uniform, nearly shadowless lighting, on every set, in every scene. There's no grain, no contrast, and you can almost imagine the actors wincing and shielding their eyes from the overlit sets. Budget limitations are also evident in the third-act climax, when the unmasked villain (real name: Adam Hart) attempts to kill the protagonist through mind control and telekinesis. The audience is treated to some Star Trek-worthy effects (i.e., the protagonist falling through space), plus a montage composed of clips from earlier scenes in the movie, including the centrifuge and the carousel. If you're still paying attention, you'll catch the obvious reference to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.
The score, composed by the usually competent Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound, Ben-Hur, and the theme to TV's Dragnet), seems misplaced for a contemporary science-fiction/mystery/thriller. Rozsa based his score around a zither. The zither sound, especially given its prior use in The Third Man is associated with a decadent, Old World, Old Europe atmosphere. It is, however, well integrated into the film at least once: when the protagonist and two other committee members seek refuge in a hotel, they attempt to blend into a sales convention. In the lobby, a musician plays the zither (converting the score from non-diegetic to diegetic). Oddly, the protagonist seems to notice the difference, as if the zither score is something he's heard along with the audience during earlier moments in the film, especially during the telekinetic attacks.Entertaining? Yes, in the right frame of mind, if expectations are kept relatively low. If you're a fan of 60s science-fiction television and film (technically competent and nothing more), a fan of any of the B-movie actors mentioned above, or simply interested in some light, less-than profound cheese, "The Power" isn't a particularly bad way to spend a late Saturday night with your (my) old friend, insomnia. It worked for me.
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originally posted: 08/28/05 09:00:56