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See you around, buddy boy.

The First Power
(1990)

(SPOILERS) One I had a hankering to see, largely due to the Don LaFontaine-narrated trailer – “Since the beginning of time, Satan has worked to create the perfect killer. One who kills many, without reason. One who cannot be stopped. Today, that man exists. Be warned” – but it somehow passed me by. Perhaps an inner sense told me it was worth skipping, and nothing Don LaFontaine could say would make it otherwise. Robert Renikoff’s supernatural serial killer thriller – see also the same year’s The Exorcist III – owed much to Jack Sholder’s 1987 body-swap SF horror The Hidden, and Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen would later hew closely to a similar premise, but is markedly inferior to both.

Channing: How’s the stomach, buddy boy?

Perhaps audiences have peculiarly refined tastes when it comes to the serial-killer genre; when he’s your straightforward slasher – Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers – any level of supernatural assistance is to be expected, and indeed relished, with the package. Include it a more “respectable” offering, however, and the movie is likely to go down like a lead balloon.

The serial killer genre rarely exceeds its essential formula and graduates to something special. The first couple of Thomas Harris adaptations managed it. Fincher’s Seven took something that might have been utterly forgettable and transformed it (he had less luck with his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; that only one ever felt like mutton dressed as lamb; ironically, the much less polished Swedish picture succeeded much better on its own terms). Fincher, of course, has spent much of his career studiously sermonising the dangers of the serial killer to audiences, which perhaps seems curious given his refined, exacting tastes. Given the genre has its basis largely in a programme explicitly designed to promote fear in the populace – via the CIA’s MKUltra programme, as reported in Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill; McGowan also identifies the key significance of satanic cults in the development of the serial killer threat – it’s perhaps unsurprising that one of influence in Hollywood such as Dave should be a leading disciple (Fight Club, after all, is a text book account of mind-control-produced alters).

At the point The First Power arrived, Hollywood’s affinity for such fare was mostly of the bargain-bin variety. Such flicks were ten a penny, nearing exhaustion until The Silence of the Lambs gave them a classy-goth jolt. There’s no such polish here. It seems Robert Renikoff went into commercials and low-budget films as an editor after graduating USC; he was already in his forties when this, his sole feature came out. Orion elected to change the title from Transit (alluding to the killer jumping bodies around LA), and you can’t really blame them.

The titular First Power is part of some occasionally nifty lore Rentikoff thought up that fails to pay off; it’s the gift of resurrection, an ability both God and Satan possess. The Second Power is the gift of the psychic (as embodied by Tracy Griffith’s Tess Seaton). The Third Power is the ability to take over another person’s body.

For reasons best known to himself – perhaps he always conceived it that way, or perhaps he really liked Jeff Kober’s scenery-chewing performance – Reskinoff largely eschews the potential of not knowing who Patrick Channing’s spirit is possessing right now, favouring Detective Russell Logan (Phillips) and Tess seeing him as he is “underneath”. There are a couple of exceptions (Nada Despotovich’s hilarious Bag Lady: “Hello, cutie!”) and Sister Marguerite (Elizabeth Arlen), the latter a prime example of careless promotions blowing a twist – even an obvious one – in the trailer.

Otherwise, you tend to see his handiwork after the fact (a zonked junkie, an impaled Lieutenant Grimes (Carmen Argenziano)). The modus operandi is on the unimaginative side – etching inverted pentagrams into his victims – and a disinterested, disaffected church is to be expected, but there are occasional glimmers of inspiration. Early on, Channing points out the pineal gland/ third eye to a victim and tells her she is going to go through a very small door backwards, before reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards (again, the inversion part isn’t the most creative of devices, but this is Satanism).

Then there’s the valid idea that those possessed – alcoholics and junkies – have less of a grip on reality, making them the more vulnerable to invasion. Although, as Lou Diamond Phillips’ Detective Russell Logan notes, this would make “half of LA” victims in waiting. And when one considers that seemingly resilient types such as he and the Sister succumb, arguably all bets are off for the majority.

The visit to Channing’s mother is also memorable, drawing as it does a direct connection between Satanism and child abuse/incest (it turns out Channing’s father was also his grandfather), and thus the programming McGowan and MKUltra survivors – Cathy O’Brien, Brice Taylor – have documented. The reaction of Channing’s grandmother (Juliana McCarthy) is quite notably unhinged as she shows Logan the door, yelling “Burn in hell! Burn in hell!

Channing: It’s just you and me now, buddy boy.

Kober, whose career includes appearances in The X-Files and Buffy, and more recently appeared as a regular in Sons of Anarchy, is clearly having a ball, grinning ghoulishly like a (more) demented Steve Tyler as he calls Logan “Buddy boy”, or “Piggy piggy”. His stunt double also engages in an impressive leap of a tall building. Channing’s crowning achievement, though, is a patently absurd assault with an appropriated ceiling fan.

Mykelti Williamson is Logan’s partner, suffering the ignominious and unlikely fate of being trampled by an urban horse. Griffith is dealt the deadly blow of a very ’80s female supporting lead: all big hair and forgettable motivation. And Phillips doesn’t really make the most of his starring role, starting off badly by throwing a map at his pizza-loving cat. Somehow, Logan has caught his third serial killer in less than five years, This, despite the fact that he keeps losing his gun, to the point of inanity (at one point, he even throws it at the killer). It may have something to do with him running runs around in a greatcoat, posing as if he’s playing laser quest or anticipating an X-Files parody.

Logan: Time for your acid bath!

The climax makes even the ceiling fan incident look sane. Having tracked the killer to a water treatment plant and pursued him down some accommodating and unlikely water slides, Logan proceeds to drop him into an even more convenient acid bath before flambé-ing him. Such excesses make The First Power more memorable than its pedestrian telling deserves.

In terms of box office, the picture entered the charts at No.4, below Ernest Goes to Jail (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was in its second week in the top slot, followed by Pretty Woman). Also out that week, less auspiciously, were I Love You to Death and Cry-Baby; the modestly budgeted The First Power actually did okay business for the increasingly beleaguered Orion (given the terrible poster, it surely exceeded expectations).



 

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