Sunday, June 22, 2008

The First Power

Back in a simpler time, Death Row criminals had to be forced to their appointed hour of execution and all was right with the world. But in the late ‘80s, a worrisome new breed of satanic psycho preferred to be taken off the tax payer’s hands rather than serve jail time. In films like Shocker (1989), The Horror Show (1989), and The First Power (1990), serial slayers who found themselves receiving their final justice courtesy of the state had a return ticket from Hell waiting for them and new opportunities to rack up a body count.

A short-lived trend, this spate of films didn’t yield any success stories but it’s hard not to applaud a wave of movies, no matter how meager that wave might’ve been, that gave Mitch Pileggi, Brion James, and Jeff Kober some of the best opportunities of their careers to chew the scenery as Horace Pinker, Max Jenke, and Patrick Channing (aka The Pentagram Killer) respectively. And even though it’s James who takes the individual acting prize in this contest (otherwise, this blogspot might've been called TV Dinners With Horace Pinker), it’s The First Power that deserves the highest overall accolades for its non-stop pace and gung-ho action sequences.

Lou Diamond Philips stars as Russell Logan, a no-bullshit cop gunning for L.A.'s latest maniac, the Pentagram Killer. As you might expect, this psycho’s telltale M.O. is – wait for it! – the pentagram that he carves into his victim’s skin (a grisly trademark that sets him apart from the equally vicious Isosceles Triangle Killer). Logan gets an anonymous tip from a psychic (Tracy Griffith) who tells him where the Pentagram Killer will strike next but offers her help only on the condition that if he captures the killer that Logan will not seek the death penalty. As this is apparently a psychic with a very narrow ability to read people, Logan agrees, uses her tip to catch the killer, and then totally surprises her by putting his latest collar into the gas chamber as fast as due process will allow. But as Logan's tipster warned, a death sentence is exactly what this unrepentant psychopath (played to eerie perfection by Kober) seems to want.

Soon after the execution, the Pentagram Killer is back in business and to Logan’s disbelief, he sees a robust Patrick Channing out on the streets again. His psychic friend reveals herself as professional medium Tess Seaton and Logan has no choice but to drop his skepticism and join forces with Tess (the fact that she's extremely easy on the eyes probably helps his decision) to take on Patrick, who now has “the first power” – the power of resurrection. Which means that Patrick now has the ability to instantly switch to any body that he chooses. As “first powers” go, that ain’t bad.

With Patrick free to kill with no earthly limits to his urges, Logan and Tess – along with the aid of an anxious, church-defying nun (Sister Marguerite, played by Elizabeth Arlen) – have to stop Patrick from eternally visiting his evil on our world. But with Patrick’s new-found immortality, he’s become the Hell-spawned Road Runner to Logan’s flat-footed Coyote.

First Power writer/director Robert Resnikoff puts action first and keeps his cast (and his stunt crew) on the run. And as this was made at the onset of the CGI-era, before every film started using CG – not just the big budget likes of The Abyss (1989) and T2 (1991) but the much lesser likes of Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1993) – The First Power does it all through death defying stuntwork (the breathtaking scene where Patrick leaps off a ten story building to the ground below and runs off without missing a step is the movie’s signature moment). And that's the main charm of The First Power to me - that everything is done by practical means.

If only the shortcomings of Resnikoff’s script weren't so glaring. Even for a movie about a cop chasing a body-hopping Satanic serial killer, it's pretty weak. It’s clichéd at every turn (even its production design reflects this: Patrick’s bedroom is earmarked with all the telltale signs of a warped upbringing, like a creepy clown painting hanging over his bed). And when it isn't being clichéd, it's simply idiotic. Like, exactly how does an overhead fan continue to keep spinning after it's been ripped out of the ceiling? And maybe things are different on the West Coast than they are here in the East but since when are enormous (and highly combustible) acid vats included as part of the sewer system?

And to unintentional comic effect, Resnifkoff keeps forgetting that Tess is supposed to be a psychic. At one point, Tess addresses a bartender as though he’s the bar’s namesake owner only to have him correct her that he’s not. And in another psychic lapse, she mistakes a plainsclothes cop trailing her as someone looking to pick her up, telling him that if he doesn’t leave her alone, she’ll call the cops!

Resnikoff showed an affinity for pulse-pounding action, however, and that’s where his movie delivers the goods. The First Power showed a lot of promise on the part of Resnikoff - not as a writer, of course, but his direction is confident. With everything accomplished on-set and in-camera with no post-production trickery, The First Power is unusually free of artifice for a modern genre film and Resnikoff never distracts from his story for the sake of attention grabbing camera moves. And yet this was the first and last feature film from him. According to his IMDB listing, Resnikoff completely vanished from the industry after The First Power. He didn’t go into another area, like writing or producing, he just left - severing his connection with film. A lot less talented directors have kept their careers going (to this day, even!) - so why did Resnikoff throw in the towel so soon?

If anyone ever bumps into this guy, tell him that The First Power rocked.

Also tell him that I'm waiting for The First Power Part II and I don't trust anyone else to do it right.