Between the two of them, director Byron Haskin and producer/director George Pal had previously been responsible for such marvelous sci-fi/fantasy films as From the Earth to the Moon, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao; working as a team, they had put together the highly regarded Conquest of Space AND The Naked Jungle. Thus, inevitably, expectations must have been high when these two formidable filmmakers teamed up once again in the late ’60s for their final project together. That film, released in February ’68, was The Power, a sci-fi thriller that, if not quite on a par with any of those preceding films, at least had the benefit of a terrific cast to put over its central conceit. Loosely based on Frank M. Robinson’s novel of 1956, the film can almost be seen as a warm-up of sorts for the superior Scanners outing of 13 years later.
In The Power, we are given a tour of a government research center in San Marino, CA that is testing the limits of human endurance as part of the U.S. government’s astronaut program. When federal overseer Nordlund (Michael Rennie) visits the installation, it is revealed by Dr. Henry Hallson (Arthur O’Connell) that he had recently given intelligence and aptitude tests to several key members of the research team, and that the tests had revealed that one of them is a supergenius, capable of telekinetic and other superhuman mental powers. Unfortunately, we are also asked to believe that Hallson does not know who the superbrain might be; apparently, these test results do not include the names of the people taking them! (Is it to be believed that these head scientists took their tests anonymously?!?!)
Before long, though, that superbrain strikes, killing Dr. Hallson via long-distance strangulation AND by placing him in an out-of-control centrifuge. Dr. Jim Tanner (George Hamilton), one of the other scientists on the project, is immediately suspected of the crime by the police, as all his education and employment records at the installation have somehow gone missing. Thus, Tanner takes off, both to keep out of the authorities’ clutches, and to discover just who the malicious mutant brain might be, as other members of the project are killed off, one by one, Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None style.
As mentioned, if The Power has one saving grace going for it, it is its truly excellent cast of old pros, who all seem to be enjoying themselves here. Besides the others already mentioned, we have Suzanne Pleshette (who has rarely looked more beautiful), Richard Carlson, Earl Holliman and Nehemiah Persoff as other project scientists, and ergo fellow suspects; Gary Merrill as the chief cop on the case; Yvonne de Carlo as Hallson’s widow; Aldo Ray as a murderous garage mechanic; Barbara Nichols as a floozy waitress; Star Trek alumni Lawrence Montaigne (as another cop) and Celia Lovsky (wasted in a nonspeaking role); stripper Beverly Hills, here playing a drunken stripper at a wild party; Sayonara‘s Miiko Taka as the Carlson character’s wife; and, uncredited, Forrest J. Ackerman as a hotel clerk.
The film offers up any number of mildly exciting sequences, including Ray’s attempt at killing Dr. Tanner on an Air Force gunnery range; the mentally incapacitated Tanner attempting to drive his car and then plunging into a river; and the mentally-controlled Holliman character being compelled to engage in a shoot-out with the police. Still, the film could surely have used some more good scenes such as these. Director Haskin, who had so impressed me in any number of bizarre episodes of The Outer Limits, also manages to insert several trippy, borderline psychedelic moments into his film, such as when Tanner witnesses eerie phenomena at an amusement park, and when he engages in a mental battle of wills with the culprit toward the film’s end. Perhaps most memorable here, though, is the film’s score by Miklos Rosza, composed on the Eastern European instrument known as a cimbalom, a sort of hammered-dulcimer contraption with a distinctly exotic tone. That is the good news.
Unfortunately, The Power somehow feels more like a TV film than a theatrical presentation, its FX are never all that impressive, the central red herring that it presents to confuse Tanner (and the viewer) is ultimately a bit too successful for full clarity, and the picture’s final denouement is — for this viewer anyway — an unsatisfying one. The film is certainly entertaining enough, but one senses that it could have been much more; that here was an opportunity somehow squandered. Though little discussed today, the film enjoys a positive word of mouth among certain circles, and I suppose that its current good reputation might in part be due to the patina of nostalgia that many have for it, from seeing it as a kid way back when.
Today, the film manages to get the job done, but just barely. So thank goodness for Suzanne Pleshette’s participation in it! For this viewer, at least, her exquisite presence always helps any entertainment go down more smoothly…