Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Astral Factor (Invisible Strangler) (Jordan/Lyon Productions, 1976)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to pick another entry from the two discs Charles downloaded (five movies each) from the 50 Sci-Fi Classics collection online since we’d had good luck with the one we’d watched the night before, Bride of the Gorilla. Mistake! The movie we ended up watching was The Astral Factor, also known (and listed on as Invisible Strangler, a 95-minute made-for-TV loser from 1976 in which a cute blond prisoner, Roger Sands (Frank Ashmore), suddenly develops the ability to make himself invisible and practice telekinesis (i.e., moving objects about without touching them) by sheer mental energy.

He uses this skill first to intimidate, and nearly murder, a Black fellow con and then, more reasonably, to escape (he’s able to get the prison doors to open themselves and the keys to move through mid-air and lock the guards in the cells, while he himself becomes invisible and uses that power to sneak out of the prison), and afterwards to resume the career as a serial killer of women that got him into prison in the first place. (The official synopsis for the film says that he acquired these abilities through acquiring books on paranormal phenomena from the prison library and using them to train himself in the techniques; though we see a cache of books spill on the floor of his cell, this is otherwise not made clear or even hinted at in the film itself.)

The cast list is a bit more impressive than the norm for these sorts of productions; the top-billed actor is Robert Foxworth, playing Lt. Charles Barrett, the lead investigator for the police in their efforts to catch the guy (he’s not bad looking, though the honor of best-looking male in the film is a split decision between Ashmore as the invisible psycho and Mark Slade as Det. Holt, who’s supposed to be Barrett’s goofus assistant but seems pretty competent to me); his wife is played by future Hart to Hart star Stefanie Powers; Elke Sommer and Cesare Danova are listed as “guest stars”; and one of the victims is Sue Lyon, who must have regarded this role as a major comedown after having worked for Stanley Kubrick on Lolita 14 years earlier!

But it’s one of those movies that not only is boring in and of itself (the screenplay was by Arthur C. Pierce based on an “original” story by Earle Lyon, and the director of record was John Florea, though according to he had uncredited help at the helm from writer Pierce and Gene Fowler, Jr.) but also sucks off too many other truly great movies, notably the 1933 classic The Invisible Man. I wondered how John Florea and company were able to direct the women who play the victims of the invisible strangler — and in particular how they got them to pantomime being strangled by an invisible assailant — but then I wondered the same thing about James Whale working with Walter Brennan, Una O’Connor and the other great character actors who ran afoul of his invisible psycho.

The filmmakers even had the chutzpah to steal the marvelous scene in the Whale film in which the carefully laid plans to ambush the Invisible Man in the home of a person he’s threatened to kill are undone by a stray cat climbing the wall around the victim’s home and triggering the trap — only in this movie, instead of a cat, it’s two stray birds. Lyon and Pierce also steal from another genuine classic, Psycho, in having the villain be a young man who first murdered his mother and then fell under her spell, committing further murders in the illusion that his new victims are also his mother and he’s punishing her once again for having abandoned him (shown in black-and-white flashbacks the filmmakers prove utterly incapable of integrating into the main action with anything remotely resembling credibility or continuity). I don’t remember seeing this film on the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 list, but it certainly would have deserved their “treatment”!