Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Second Sight

Year: 1982
Director: Armand Mastroianni
Cast: Perry King, Norman Parker, Elizabeth Kemp
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

You know I'm a sucker for a good slasher movie poster, and The Clairvoyant's key art has style to spare. Those disembodied hands that uncannily fail to match the position of the eyes, the deliciously unnecessary ellipses (the most overused and yet endearing slasher tagline trope), and the self-indulgence of just throwing a second tagline on there for flavor were almost too much for me. Now I've certainly learned that a poster doesn't necessarily reflect the content of the movie (see: literally my entire review of The Incubus), but The Clairvoyant had another ace up its sleeve: director Armand Mastroianni.

If you're asking "who?" you're not alone. But I'm not about to ignore the man who made my #5 favorite slasher film of 1980: He Knows You're Alone. That film was a naked Halloween rip-off, but it had an unusually classy approach, engaging characters, and the first feature film appearance by Tom Hanks. So given that director with two more years of experience under his belt, I can't say I wasn't intrigued.

But also maybe I AM a little bit just a big sucker for posters still.

In The Clairvoyant, originally released as The Killing Hour, Virna Nightbourne (Elizabeth Kemp, also of He Knows You're Alone) - who has the name of a Dark Shadows character - is an automatic drawer. This means she goes into a trance and allows her hand to draw for her, creating images of the near future. Unfortunately these images are all of murder most foul, starting with the body of a handcuffed woman (Olivia Negron) that washes up in the New York City harbor. As a killer begins rampaging through town, always using a pair of handcuffs in his elaborate setpiece murders, she interacts with two very different men also on the trail of the killer.

First there's Detective Larry Weeks (Norman Parker), who moonlights as a terrible comedian who does terrible impressions. Then we have the handsome and conniving TV journalist Paul 'Mac' McCormack (Perry King), who is drumming up drama around the killings to boost his ratings, using information he got from Weeks in exchange for a shot at auditioning for his channel's visiting bigwig. They also both fall immediately in love with Virna, because when there's a dame connected to a string of killings, everybody working with her is single.

That's how it works, folks!

The Clairvoyant commits a cardinal sin of slasher films: it focuses more on the cops chasing the killer rather than either the killer or the victims. It hurts extra bad this time because the always creepy requisite romantic plotline is made even more so by the fact that he's both a cop on her case and a comedian, which is a stomach-churning kind of person to say yes to a first date with. But, like a lot of the best slashers in this vein, The Clairvoyant packs itself to the gills with material that is well worth sitting through the dull procedural parts.

Take the opening kill. A man is swimming alone in an indoor pool when all of a sudden the lights go off. As he swims to the edge, he is dragged underwater, his ankle handcuffed to a lower rung of the pool ladder. He tries to swim up for air, but the handcuffs hold him fast mere inches from the surface of the water. His quiet struggle (this is underscored by muffled underwater sound design) is broken up with shots of his hands splashing uselessly above the surface, and shots of Virna drawing this very death, her pencil scratching loudly across her sketchpad. It's a chilling scene, simultaneously gonzo and stately. The sheer terror of the situation is jaw-dropping, but the presentation of it is elegant and artful, and it's a hell of a way to start your movie.

And unlike its contemporary The Slayer, The Clairvoyant has more than one great kill to offer. The pacing of the body count is a little more slack than I'd like it to be, leaving us a good 45-minute gaping swath of time without another kill, but the second you start to itch for one, you get a shot of adrenaline in the form of another playful, wild murder setpiece. The film using its handcuff conceit to its fullest extent, constantly delivering something fresh and new and totally unnerving.

And featuring a weirdly high proportion of shirtless men, not that I'm complaining.

The Clairvoyant is also more than just the sum of its kills. It's an extremely well-mounted picture, starting with the way its lush orchestral score pulls back at the perfect moments to drown intense scenes in quiet, simmering soundscapes rather than huge blares of "This is scary! Aaah!". The only place this doesn't exactly work is the final chase sequence, which goes on long enough that the sheer amount of quiet begins to just be frustrating and put a damper on the drama, but everywhere else it's excellent. It's well-shot too, the camera always finding its moment to hit you with a strong close-up, or dolly zoom the background so subtly it takes a moment to notice what it's doing.

The plot is also generally satisfying, serving up at least one major twist that brings a tingle to the spine. Sadly the final twist as to the identity of the killer is easy enough to guess (so much so that I'm not even hiding it in my breakdown below), because the investigation never bothers to throw any red herrings our way. But all in all it's a thrilling watch from start to finish.

I'm giving this film a solid rating, but I'd rate it even higher if not for a couple flaws on top of the ones I've already mentioned. One big irritant is that Virna - the title character, let me remind you - plays second or even third fiddle to the men in the movie, not even being properly introduced until about 20 minutes in. It's a huge shame, because Elizabeth Kemp is delivering a rock solid performance, and her chemistry with her roommate Muriel (played by Barbara Quinn, who you might know as Anxious Tunnel Person in Jaws 3-D) is warm and irresistible.

But that's not a flaw that would sink a movie as strong as this. The following is a flaw that might, though. The Clairvoyant has some pretty problematic elements that might be hard to swallow for certain viewers. For instance, the completely unnecessary scene where a Latino suspect is shot by the cops in front of his mother. Yeah, that wasn't a pleasant one. Or the extended rape scene that is slowly revealed in flashback as the cops solve the mystery of the murdered woman. At least this scene has the delicacy to be presented as a horrifying, abominable act (a tone one should not necessarily expect from an 80's slasher film), but it's extremely hard to watch. The latter scene I find more forgivable in a horror film (we're here to be presented with images that shock and disgust us) even though it challenged me and likely will challenge other viewers. But the former is an unnecessary plot detour in a movie that's already aching to have a solid five minutes cut from its run time. It's especially difficult to watch in the political climate of 2020, which is not The Clairvoyant's fault, but I don't see a reading where it adds to the movie in any meaningful way.

As it all shakes out, though, The Clairvoyant is still the kind of stunning, surprising movie that I put in the work on this project to find. I wish I could recommend it more wholeheartedly, but even with its flaws it's still an exhilarating find. It's not often at this point that an 80's slasher film can have me slack-jawed in awe, and this flick accomplished that not once but thrice.

Killer: Paul 'Mac' McCormack (Perry King)
Final Girl: Virna Nightbourne (Elizabeth Kemp)
Best Kill: It's actually hard to choose, for once. I'm gonna go with Muriel being handcuffed to the wheel of a car with a brick on the gas pedal, for pure adrenaline-pumping terror.
Sign of the Times: Doing a Woody Allen impression didn't make Virna run away from Detective Weeks screaming in terror.
Scariest Moment: The opening kill is intercut with one of Virna's pictures, underscored by the scratch-scratch of her rapid pencil movements.
Weirdest Moment: We spend a good minute and a half listening to the comedian who's performing before Weeks, and I couldn't detect a single joke but the audience was laughing their asses off.
Champion Dialogue: "I'm as pure as a baby's ass."
Body Count: 7
  1. Burt Johnson is handcuffed to a pool ladder and drowned.
  2. Jim Dearden is handcuffed to metal and electrocuted.
  3. Teddy Gallagher is handcuffed and crushed by a falling elevator.
  4. Willie Gonzalez is shot.
  5. Muriel is handcuffed to the wheel of a speeding car that launches into the river.
  6. Betty Mercer is smothered with a pillow in flashback.
  7. Paul McCormack is dropped off a roof.
TL;DR: The Clairvoyant is not as easy to love as the director's previous slasher gem, but it's still an astonishing thrill ride.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1551


  1. "Sadly the final twist as to the identity of the killer is easy enough to guess"

    Easy enough I guessed it literally the moment you described their character. Atypical background for a slasher, though (atypical weapon, too), which is interesting.

    1. It’s certainly interesting, that’s for sure! This was a really fascinating, if troubling watch.