Herschell Gordon Lewis presents: The Psychic

Herschell Gordon Lewis is most famous for his ground-breaking gore films, such as Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs!, The Wizard of Gore and others. Lewis not only directed some of the most infamous exploitation films of his (or any) time, he also made movies in collaboration with other exploitation film makers. He had a habit of picking up other film makers' unfinished projects and -- well -- if not exactly finishing them, at least making them long enough to be released as a second feature. Perhaps his best known back-alley edit job is Monster A-Go-Go, based on footage shot for Bill Rebane's aborted Terror at Halfday. Lewis turned Rebane's already-dismal project into a film which, in its length-to-awfulness ratio, is among the most excruciating experiences ever inflicted on an audience.

But Lewis's collaborations were sometimes more cooperative. In 1967, Lewis teamed up with writer James Hurley to create Something Weird, a movie about a man who discovers he has psychic powers after a terrible, disfiguring accident. He meets a hideous old witch who promises to restore his good looks, on the condition that he becomes her lover. The psychic swallows his nausea and agrees. The witch poses as his secretary, appearing to everyone else to be a beautiful woman... while to her companion, she is still the hag. This would have been a strong enough premise for an entire film, but to Hurley and Lewis, this was only the setup. The movie becomes a mystery, as the psychic is called in to help solve a series of killings. Even that isn't the end of the story, though, as the movie slides into spy movie territory, then becomes a trip film, then goes completely bananas.

In 1968, Hurley wrote and began directing a very similar film for Lewis, this one simply called The Psychic. The Psychic is much more conventional than Something Weird, with no trippy inserts or special effects, and a single basic story line which stays more or less on target for about two thirds of its total length. I get the feeling that Hurley had learned some lessons from the wildly excessive Something Weird, and was now approaching his favorite subject with more discipline.

Unfortunately, this approach made for a talky, much less entertaining film. The ghoulish sense of humor, the gross special effects, and the broad overacting we have come to expect from a Herschell Gordon Lewis production are all missing from The Psychic. Worse, Hurley seems only able to sustain his vision for 40 minutes, which was too short for a feature release. Oddly enough, those 40 minutes seem rushed, with important information and key scenes missing and filled in with hasty expository dialogue. The remainder of The Psychic is padded with 20 minutes of additional footage, scattered throughout without any regard for continuity. The added scenes consist mostly of softcore skin, tame by today's standards, but still callous and repellent in tone. They're very badly out of place in the film, ruining the momentum of the film and destroying our sympathy with it. I get the impression that Hurley liked his own script too much to inflict this kind of damage on it. My guess is the inserts were Lewis's contribution.

The movie begins with a really splendidly composed shot: a man stands in a deserted playground on a grey, dull day, watching the broken swings of a swing set as they sway in the wind. The mournful title song begins: "Little Man, What to Do?" asks the singer, as we see silent footage of a talk show. A poor Johnny Carson imitator, on a poor imitation of the Tonight Show set, is interviewing the man we saw a moment before. The man is attempting to guess the contents of a sealed box. He exchanges some comments with the host, and as the sad music continues, the host opens the box. Inside is a stuffed rabbit. From the host's amused reaction, and the stunned, crestfallen look of the interviewee, we can tell that he's guessed wrong.

Suddenly, we cut to a blonde girl in a bikini, lying face-down on a bed. She's wearing sunglasses on the back of her head, making her look like Cousin Itt from the Addams family. We hear a man's voice, narrating: he was so mad at what had been done to him (the rabbit, I guess) that he went to see Carol, the wife of his business rival. He's in advertising, you see, and his rival has a firm called "ArtCraft". Apparently advertising executives like to go on late-night talk shows and guess what's in boxes. Anyway, Carol seems to our narrator to be "an awful lot o' Mama", even if she is his rival's spouse. But Carol's not the blonde in the bikini, who gets up, takes the glasses off the wrong side of her head, and begins sucking a lollipop. No; the bikini girl is Sandy, Carol's autistic sister, who is completely oblivious to her surroundings.

Carol, by contrast, is a short-haired brunette (and while I'm on the subject of hair, let me point out that the hair of our nominal hero is longer and differently-styled in this scene than it was in the wordless prologue. Obviously this scene [along with several others like it] was shot at a different time than the rest of the movie). Carol is willing to sleep with her husband's competitor, but only on certain terms: "If she didn't know what was going on," drools the narrator, "she wasn't to blame and wouldn't feel guilty." Our hero punches Carol in the face and knocks her out. Then he lays her inert form on the bed, undresses her, and molests her. It's "like giving it to a dead person", our "hero" thinks to himself; while Sandy sits on the other side of the bed, sucking her lollipop, utterly unconcerned.

Carol wakes up in the middle of all this, but she pretends to be still unconscious. See? sneers the film, she's being raped and she likes it. She turns her face to the camera for a moment, and the camera obligingly moves in for a closeup. Her expression is supposed to suggest lascivious abandon... imagine a department store mannequin with an ulcer, and you'll have a better idea of the look she achieves.

Remember, this scene is our introduction to the main character: this scene should give us a hint of what to expect for the rest of the movie. If this scene had been played completely straight, and if it had any bearing on the rest of the plot, it would still have been disturbing, but not as repellent. After all, there are plenty of interesting films which take sexual degradation as one of their central themes. Instead, this smarmy interlude, with its hints of rape and even necrophilia, is presented in a light, jokey tone, and that makes it much, much worse.

The "joke" here is at Carol's expense, and she's a non-character: we know nothing about her before this scene, she never comes back into the story, and nothing that happens to her has any consequences during the rest of the film. Carol is disposable. I've long argued that movies tell us more about the way we are than they way we ought to be, and this film is no exception: here we have a very clear picture of the sort of sexual attitudes that prevailed in the 60's, even as women rebelled and demanded better treatment.

After this interminable introduction, we begin the film proper. Our "hero", ad exec Dan Thomas (insert you own Lebanese-American actor-singer joke here), is up a ladder, doing something inexplicable to a window. He makes small talk with his wife while his young daughter Lisa plays in the yard. Something about this scene of peaceful domesticity plays false after the smarmy interlude we've just seen.

Shortly after Dan's wife Ellen goes back into the house, the little girl runs in screaming. It seems Daddy's fallen off the ladder and hurt himself. Ellen rushes outside and finds Dan in a heap on the ground, with red makeup smeared on one ear. This is supposed to represent a concussion, I suppose.

Dan begins to regain consciousness in a hospital room. He mutters his wife's name over and over again in his delirium. Everything goes foggy, and (sure enough) we flash back to a mawkish courtship scene. Dan's whispered endearments to Ellen include "You're not exactly a cadaver yourself." This is the second throwaway reference to necrophilia we've had in the film so far. Anyway, Ellen staggers Dan by proposing to him: "Marry me, Daniel Thomas," she says; "Marry me now!" So flat is her delivery that Dan has no choice but to accept. He cautions her that he'll be making very little money as they start their lives together: "It'll be beans and franks for the first 20 years." Ellen counters that she knows several ways to cook beans and franks, and as the audience tries to keep its own dinner down, we fade back into the present.

Dan is sitting up in bed, fully conscious after what we're told has been a 7 hour brain operation. His doctors have even allowed him visitors: in addition to Ellen, his boss at the ad agency, an older gentleman named John Wilson, has also come to see him. As Wilson shakes Dan's hand before leaving, there comes an ominous cimbalom chord. Conversing with Ellen shortly thereafter, Dan casually remarks that Wilson is going to die next Tuesday. Ellen asks him why on earth he would say such a thing, but Dan can't even remember having said it. It's just that... when their hands had touched... Dan had a certain feeling.

Cut to next Tuesday. Dan is not only fully recovered from his (ahem) brain operation, he's also wearing a tiny bandage on the side of his head... over his fully-grown head of hair. That's right: the bandage is just pasted to his hair, none of which has been shaved off prior to his operation. So far the only thing supernatural about this movie has been Dan Thomas's hair, which seems to be able to re-grow to any length whenever it pleases.

Dan also has hideous proto-70's decor in his house. In addition to the awful red-brown refrigerator, he's got the coffee table ornament from hell: a display of fake grapes in an ornate plastic basin, all spray-painted gold. Also, Dan's boss is dead.

What? You didn't see that coming? Hm. Dan even knows in advance who told Ellen of Wilson's death. This may have something to do with the movie's title.

Things get stranger when Dan is called in to see his boss's son and heir (a man who seriously missed his calling as a mortician). As soon as Wilson, Jr. passes some papers to him, Dan realizes in a flash that the younger man has sold the company to his dreaded rival at ArtCraft, Inc. Dan's lines are rather awkwardly worded at this point to call attention to the fact that Wilson' Jr. has indeed been handling the papers... this tells us slow people in the audience where Dan's psychic impression is coming from (as the film goes on, though, the rule of touch will be forgotten).

Wilson, Jr. is taken aback. At first he denies the matter, which has been a huge secret until now. Then he finally confesses, in an even more awkward moment: "I have debts," he explains; "Gambling debts." Dan is disgusted. the two exchange threats and accusations, and Dan quits. As he leaves, Dan advises Wilson to get out of the ad business. Marry a nice girl. Settle down. "And leave the boys alone," he adds as a final shot... leaving Wilson speechless with embarrassment.

There follows a scene back at Dan's home, which is badly washed out in my print. It's meant to suggest the beginning of Dan's withdrawal into depression, I suppose, but I couldn't take my eyes off the TV set the little girl is watching. I have no idea what show is supposed to be on, and given that this is pre-video, I suppose it was actually on live TV at the time. Whatever it is, it looks like a bad trip. It looks like Bonanza on speed.

Dan's descent into despair is signaled by a montage that includes Ellen finding lipstick smears on his collar as she does the laundry. When Ellen confronts him about his infidelities, Dan gets all self-righteous. She doesn't know how hard it is, he tells her. People come to him for help, he says... funny how we haven't seen any of that. Apparently he's been doing his psychic thing on the streets and acquiring a reputation, though these scenes have been left out of the film. Ellen is unimpressed. His own daughter is afraid of him; he's been seeing other women and drinking too much; he's been using his "talent" to cheat at gambling, but rather than do anything constructive with the money, he drinks it all away.

I think the idea we're supposed to get from this is that he thinks he wants to help people... but it's really just an excuse. Actually, he seems to see his ability as a way to interfere in people's lives, and while he's tempted to use this power, he's too frightened of it to decide what to do. Drinking or other self-destructive behavior makes the voices in his head go away, or at least makes them inaudible for a while.

Ellen is fed up. She suggests that maybe they should separate for a while. Much to Ellen's surprise, Dan agrees. With very little fuss, Dan leaves.

And now it's time for another excursion into smarm. Dan, again with long hair, is back in the same cheesy motel room in which he has pseudo-necro sex with his rival's wife. The oblivious blonde is back in her spot on the passenger side of the bed, still sucking her lollipop. Oh -- but this is supposed to be the home of Ellen's sister Laurel, a girl in glasses and a housecoat. Laurel is berating Dan in pantomime while Dan's voice-over explains what's going on: his sister-in-law is angry at him for abandoning Ellen.

In the heat of the argument, Laurel slaps Dan. Dan says he wants to retaliate, but feels he shouldn't hit a person with glasses. So he takes them off her face. And then he undoes her hair. And then we're off into pornoland again, as Dan's own sister-in-law, who was justifiably furious with him for the way he was treating Ellen, is now clawing at him and hopping into the sack. This would be ludicrous and distasteful enough, but there's more: "So this is how you got straight A's in college..." pants Dan in flagrante. "And I'll bet she made a lot of professors happy doin' it!" Hang in there, folks: the movie has lower to sink before we're through.

Dan just happens to notice the blonde girl in the bed with them. Another one of Ellen's sisters, it seems. "She looks kinda familiar," says Dan to himself, and the audience thinks uneasily about the accuracy of the movie's title.

Dan meets a girl in a bar. He examines her ring, and tells her things about her life that would get him in serious trouble if he said them to a woman in a bar today. Somehow, instead of being offended, repelled, and possibly a little frightened, the girl suggests they put on an act together. Dan would do his mind-reading number, and the girl (Barbara, or Bobbie for short) would be his scantily clad assistant. It sounds pretty good to Dan. "We could make it together," says Bobbie, and since this is the 60's, she means it in both senses of the term. This time the screwing has a little more to do with the plot, and is at least consensual.

(Here I want to point out that Barbara has a frieze of pseudo-Greek statue heads on her wall. This same-style ornament turned up on the wall of the Morningside Mortuary in Phantasm.)

Cut to Dan's act, at some unspecified date in the future. Well, actually, we're first treated to footage of a mariachi band warming up for Dan's act. Enjoy the band: it's the most talent we've seen in the film so far. After the band is finished, the club host introduces Dan and Bobbie. Dan does that old wheeze about identifying the owners and histories of objects collected at random through the room.

How good a psychic is our hero? Well, the act does yield some pretty remarkable insight into Dan's skill. He promises to tell the audience "something about the owner [of each object]... TONIGHT!" So he can definitely get results within a few hours. And here's a little exchange I wish I were making up:

Dan: Will the owner of this watch please stand?
    (a man stands up)
Dan: (triumphantly) You, sir, are the owner of this watch!

Somehow, this little act manages to impress the owner of the watch in question. That man turns out to be the wealthy Mr. Dussek from New York, who invites Dan to drop everything and come with him back to the city. Dussek wants him to participate in a study on the paranormal, rather than "prostitute his talents" (this is a dig at Bobbie).

So Dan ditches Bobbie.

Bobbie is, naturally, upset. She got him the job that brought him to the attention of Dussek. Heck, she was sleeping with him. And now he's discarded her on his way to the top. Basically, he's just confirming what we already know: Dan is a big fat jerk. As for his ability to see into people's lives: it's apparently a selective vision. Bobbie points out acidly that Dussek has more than strictly scientific interest in Dan, but Dan (in spite of his earlier contemptuous comment to Wilson) refuses to see this. "I see a great future for you," he tells Bobbie, "...without me. Get it? Nobody," he adds, "is going to get in my way." He fails to see that Bobbie, far from getting in his way, has been holding him together.

In the big city, Dan meets Henry and Felicia Calder. Henry is a promoter of some sort. When he comments to Dan that Felicia enjoyed his act, Dan replies snootily that he was unaware he had an "act". Henry responds:

Henry: Oh, don't misunderstand me. Even Christ had a bit of the actor in him. He had a product to sell, and he believed enough in his product to die for it. Would you be willing to sacrifice much less?
I don't think this statement requires much in the way of comment. I think Calder is supposed to be the Devil to Dan's Faust. At least he would be in a better-written script. As it is, the connection between the two of them, and Calder's real role in the fall of Dan Thomas, is left underdeveloped.

Calder gets Dan a gig on the "Jerry Larson" show (you know, the "Ronite Show". The one with Ted McNahon). Calder gets the idea that it might be a nice surprise if Dan's wife and daughter paid him a surprise visit before the show. When Ellen arrives, she finds Dan in a bar with some girl he's just met. This just serves to drive the two even further apart. Here again I'd like to give Hurley and Lewis the benefit of the doubt and assume that Calder knew this would happen.

There's a brief interlude featuring Felicia Calder's son by a previous marriage, a young boy named Jeff. Jeff is on hand so he can have a "touching moment" with Jeff, whose paternal instincts are re-kindled for a moment (Jeff couldn't have been Calder's real son, since Calder is still playing the half-hearted role of Dan's devil). As Dan and Jeff have an embarrassingly sentimental "bonding session", Dan experiences a twinge of chest pains -- possibly in an earlier version of the script, as in the much later Firestarter, Dan's "gift" was supposed to have taken a toll on his health. As it happens, this part of the story is barely mentioned for the rest of the film... and Jeff himself also pretty much disappears. The boy has time for a saccharine prayer, though: he asks God to "take care of my good friend Dan".

We come to the night of the Larson show, as a painfully bad Johnny Carson imitator steps out in front of a painfully bad imitation Tonight Show set and... hey... wait a minute: this is the same scene we saw (without sound) at the beginning of the movie. Well, that sure throws the narrative out of whack. Where was I? Oh yes: Larson makes a transparently phony excuse to skip the monologue on that night's show (for which I suppose we should be grateful). Jerry's first guest is a dim starlet. They chat for a while, and then Dan comes out. He's given a sealed box, and asked to guess the contents. He fails miserably. Then again, remember the idea mentioned earlier? That he depended on touch for his impressions? The sealed box probably wasn't touched by the owner of the object inside, so... ahh, the hell with it. As we've seen at the start of the film, Dan comes off looking like a total fraud.

The scene drags out longer as both Jerry and his actress guest torment Dan over his failure. Just as the audience is beginning to wonder why the scene is going on so mercilessly, Dan gets a vision about the actress sitting next to him. He reveals something from her past on national TV -- an early lesbian relationship gone sour. We know we're going into a flashback because somebody waves a pane of Vaseline-smeared glass in front of the camera (Lewis's celebrated camera technique is nowhere in evidence here). It's time for yet another softcore insert. (This time there's a genuine surprise in store for the 60's mainstream audience -- the other girl is black. I wonder how that played in the 60's Southern drive-ins?)

This kind of psychic vision is, if anything, worse for Dan's reputation than his missed guess. After his TV appearance, Dan does attract a certain sort of attention, though: a man claiming to be a plain-clothes detective kidnaps Dan's little daughter.

Calder reveals a little more of his Mephistophelian side when he encourages Dan to make statements about his impressions of Lisa's whereabouts. "Don't you understand how important this could be?" he asks. The really important thing is that a girl's life is at stake, but Calder (for all his professed concern) is really only looking for a new angle. Dan is conflicted. Somewhere in his heart he really wants to help, and this desire is keeping him from realizing the extent to which his powers have faded.

At this point the film hits rock-bottom, and not because of an extraneous insert. The camera pans down through some trees, to a ditch by the side of a road. Little Lisa is lying in a crumpled heap in the ditch. Her dress has been pushed up, and there are smears of stage blood across her thighs.

I was really willing to give this movie a chance up to this point. I thought it could have used a better script and better actors, and better blocking; and, instead of the pointless sex scenes, more scenes to advance the plot and less reliance on bland expository dialogue. But all the while the film was lapsing into its duller passages, I suppose I was watching a second, parallel film in my head: the way it could have been done... other ways the material could have been approached, or elaborated, to turn it from a dismal little Z-film into a film that was, if not good, at least enjoyably bad. And then they give us a jarring, heartwrenching image like this. I firmly believe there is a place for shocking images in film -- but I also believe that if you're going to use an image like this, you have to earn the privilege. You have to mean what you say. By including this scene, the film has gone way out of its depth, and in doing so it has lost my sympathy completely.

It turns out that the little girl is not dead, though her condition is serious. The police are furious with Dan. Not only were his predictions all wrong, his interference was actually a hindrance to them in locating the child. Despite Dan's weak protests, the police are convinced that Dan was using the tragic situation to gain publicity. They're also disgusted by his apparent lack of concern over the girl's condition once she's been found.

Despondent and confused, Dan tries to see Ellen once more. He tries to apologize to her. He's beginning (only beginning) to realize he's made a complete shambles of everything. When Ellen asks him flat out if he was trying to use Lisa's disappearance for publicity, Dan has the first nearly honest moment in the film so far -- he thinks for a moment, then painfully suggests that he might have done.

That's when Ellen's new employer, Dr. Stewart, walks in (wearing REALLY SHINY PANTS). Dan doesn't need his lost psychic powers to realize what's been happening since he abandoned his wife. Ellen, Dr. Stewart and Stewart's REALLY SHINY PANTS go off together, and Dan, more confused than ever, realizes he's lost Ellen for good.

Suddenly, a drunk girl (that is, a bad actress pretending to be drunk) staggers up to the table. She says she's a reporter, and that she's made a bet that she can get him to talk to her. For once, though, Dan isn't interested in the girl next to him. Instead, he has his Big Breakdown, wherein he shouts at everyone in earshot to just leave him alone.

Any poignancy, any sense of character growth we may have got from these last few minutes disappears as soon as the next scene begins. Dan's got his long hair on again; he's back in that motel-room set we've seen so often before. This time, he's alone with the catatonic girl in the bikini. She offers him her lollipop.

Here's Dan' voice-over, as bikini-girl undoes her top and slides into his arms:

Dan: I really began to doubt my own sanity. It was all like a bad movie [sorry -- WTL] a bad dream; the kind you don't seem to be able to awaken from. It's as if you've stopped functioning. But life moves on without you -- like everyone's kid sister had quickly grown up, and you suddenly found yourself very... old.

Ahh, so it's symbolism. All this time, the girl has been a portent, warning him of his wasted opportunities. I should have realized that Herschell Gordon Lewis, one-time graduate professor of English, would have some justification for his sleazy inserts. The only problem is that the explanation is even dumber than the inserts taken at face value.

Dan, back in his normal hair length, is informed by a Professor of Medical Psychology that his psychic abilities are completely gone, and will most likely never come back. How a Professor of Medical Psychology can make a diagnosis like this I'm not sure. Perhaps he's psychic. Dan, seeing his last dream of success vanish, tries to compose himself as he walks out, slowly.

He hasn't been gone more than a moment when we hear his voice again, calling the Professor from the doorway. The Prof looks up. Dan walks back into the room, and haltingly begins to describe how he really feels. Imagine, he says, that there's a kid who's been given a toy by some rich Uncle he doesn't even know.

This is Dan's big Moment, and even if it's a hackneyed moment, we're ready for it. This ought to be the speech where he suddenly makes the connection; where he suddenly realizes what a heel he's been, and either begins the slow climb out of the Pit or surrenders to despair. He'll ask the Professor what the kid is supposed to do when, not realizing the value of the toy, he breaks it beyond repair. We brace ourselves for the inevitable...

... and it doesn't come.

The Psychic still has one last trick to play on us, and I have to admit it's a good one. Dan comes to the edge of self-realization -- and backs away from it. Instead of continuing the story of the child and his toy as we expect, he changes the story: imagine that the Uncle suddenly takes the toy away. Imagine that a man who's always wanted to be somebody, gets that opportunity... and then, in a flash, his gift is gone. Refusing to acknowledge that he's ruined his own life, and taken others down into the muck with him, all he can do is insist childishly that it's not fair, it's not fair, it's NOT FAIR!!

Dan has learned absolutely nothing. The movie's only redeeming feature is its lack of catharsis, its refusal to allow its hero any undeserved tragic dignity. The film's splendidly composed opening shot comes back: Dan stands beneath the broken swings, and we have a montage of all the people he's abused and abandoned. Dan Thomas has been a louse all the way through the film, and as The Psychic ends after barely an hour, he is still as much of a louse as he ever was.

The Psychic is not an easy film to find on video. Other Lewis films have appeared recently on DVD, and most of them are incredibly entertaining, if not particularly good movies. I doubt that The Psychic will be joining the likes of Something Weird, The Gore-Gore-Girls, Blood Feast or my personal favorite, 2,000 Maniacs!, on DVD any time soon.

My copy was a former rental. Originally, it had come in a large-format box, the way movies were packaged back in the early days of video. The box had been cut down to fit a normal size rental case. Actually, the box was the most entertaining thing about the movie: on the back was a warning from Camp Video, Inc. against video piracy. Camp and Herschell Gordon Lewis were offering a modest cash reward for the internal organs of anyone caught pirating The Psychic. They also claimed that each copy of the video was marked with an invisible code that made detection of pirated copies easier. They followed this with actual statements, from Jack Valenti among others, about the detrimental effect of video piracy on the industry. All this is followed by a statement from Dan Thomas, "The Psychic" himself, promising that there was no invisible code. He had passed his hands over every copy... and HE KNEW!!

As a tongue-in-cheek joke at the expense of the media industry, it comes in second to the Dead Kennedys' statement on the back of In God We Trust, Inc.: "Since home taping is killing the recording industry, Side B has been left blank for your convenience".

When I got the movie home, I noticed there was an inscription on the front. "To Fred," it read: "Herschell Gordon L--". The rest had been cut off when the box was trimmed to fit the rental case. After watching the movie, I thought it was strangely appropriate, that the video store should have shown so little respect to the co-director of a movie which has so little respect for its audience.