The Astral Travel Cult of Psychic Killer (1975)

*contains spoilers

Fans of the original Insidious (2010) movie maybe interested in the aspect of astral travel or projection. In that film, a child travels in the astral realm while he is asleep and cannot return to his body. It is this aspect which makes the entire movie so interesting. The sequels less so.

But if we go back well over thirty years, there is an astral projection murder mystery, which is the last movie directed by actor Ray Danton (1931-92 kidney failure) entitled Psychic Killer (1975). It was probably filmed the previous year.

Psychic Killer (1974) poster

Psychic Killer is an exploitation film which exploits a good b-cast and its street cred as a exploitation flick goes right down to the insert of the title of the movie, almost spliced in as an afterthought with flames… Whereas it would appear the original title has been ripped out and the rest of the opening credits are classy titles and images of Kirlian photography. You can see this one probably played the grindhouses in its day.

Ray Danton directed a couple of other horrors in the 1970s, including The Deathmaster (1972) aka Guru Vampire starring Robert Quarry (1925-2009 heart condition), an actor who was riding high on the success of Count Yorga, Vampire (1970).

Actor and director Ray Danton

While the production of The Deathmaster reportedly goes back to 1970, it was released a couple of years later and gained notoriety over the years for apparently appearing on film critic Roger Ebert’s (1942-2013 cancer) most hated list. I’m surprised the critic would watch the film in the first place!

For The Deathmaster, Quarry is said to have used the same dentures created for him for Count Yorga, Vampire and he would use them again in the even better The Return of Count Yorga (1971).

Robert Quarry terrified me as a child in The Return of Count Yorga (1971)

Quarry was such a hit with the original Yorga movie that he was apparently given license to improvise his own philosophical dialogue in Deathmaster as he plays a vampire guru who seduces and sucks the blood out of young hippies who live in his castle type mansion in California. It helped that he was one of the producers.

Apparently, the reason why the film sat on the shelf after it was produced by Quarry was because the actor had broken away from the producers of the original Count Yorga movie American International. In revenge for going rogue, American International bought the film and sat on it until Quarry had made The Return of Count Yorga.

The Return of Count Yorga (1971) trailer

With an unlikely Ray Conniff (1916-2002 result of a fall) song shoehorned into the proceedings, Quarry arrives at the beginning of the movie in an old coffin which washes up on the beach during some sort of devilish ceremony by a Renfield type servant tooting his flute played by LaSesne Hilton (1935-87).

The Deathmaster was said to have been shot in a couple of weeks and I guess Ebert thought Corman could do a better job with Boris Karloff (1887-1967 pneumonia and emphysema) in four days a la The Terror (1963). Or so anyone may think upon a cursory glance.

Quarry is the perfect Manson vampire in The Deathmaster (1972)

The Deathmaster was made in the wake of the Manson Murders and Quarry is made up to look like Charles Manson (1934-2017 colon cancer) and the actor has a certain charisma which lends himself to the role, just like the best vampire actors. The piercing blue eyes are quite apt.

“Look who’s joined the freak show,” says biker Bill Ewing (1948-) whose girlfriend has fallen under Quarry’s spell.

Quarry more or less sabotaged his career by making this one and only his role in the second Yorga movie and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) with Vincent Price (1911-93 lung cancer), where he played the ‘good’ guy, would capture some of his original success. Quarry would also make the Amicus film Madhouse (1974) with Price.

The Deathmaster (1972) trailer

The Deathmaster is possibly European influenced in a way because director Danton had just returned after a quite a long spell of making movies as an actor in Europe.

Danton was born in New York and entered showbusiness as a child. He later appeared in the Tyrone Power (1914-58 heart attack) stage production of Mister Roberts in London. He served in Korea and then did television before Universal Studios took him on. It is there he met future wife Julie Adams (1926-2019) who appeared in Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Danton played Susan Hayward’s (1917-75 lung and brain cancer) boyfriend in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) and was in The Spoilers (1956) with Jeff Chandler (1918-61 blood poisoning). His early lead roles were in the hard to catch movies Outside the Law (1956) which was a film nor directed by Jack Arnold (1916-92 arteriosclerosis) and The Night Runner (1957) about a violent mental patient.

Danton and wife and actress Julie Adams

I always remember Danton in Too Much, Too Soon (1958) which was about the life of alcoholic actress Diana Barrymore (1921-60 possible drug overdose). In it, Danton played the no good, sponging tennis player boyfriend who hits a tennis ball hard into the face of Dorothy Malone (1924-2018 natural cause), who plays Diana.

That was made for Warner Bros. and Danton signed a contract with the studio. He worked with producer Albert Zugsmith (1910-93) in The Beat Generation (1959) as a serial rapist, while his most famous role was probably in Budd Boetticher’s (1916-2001) The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) as the title character. And, no, Legs wasn’t given the name because he was a good dancer as they say in the movie but because he was quick on his feet to flee the scene of a crime!

Danton tended to be typecast in the 1960s

After having cultivated a dead-end persona as either a gangster or an unstable psychotic, Danton went to Europe where he did a couple of Sandokan historical adventure movies in Italy and several others. He must have taken notice and learned how to direct because upon his return to America he made The Deathmaster.

Danton also filmed scenes to complete a US version of a foreign film Crypt of the Living Dead (1973) aka Hannah, Queen of the Vampires. This one stars Andrew Prine (1936-) and Mark Damon (1933-) and deservedly gets a bad rap as it is rather boring. I hate to dud movies but that one is definitely no classic.

Andrew Prine in the underwhelming Crypt of the Living Dead (1973)

Danton’s masterpiece as director though is Psychic Killer. The cast includes the director’s then wife Julie Adams and Jim Hutton (1934-79 liver cancer) who was at the time enjoying some success on the small screen with the cult tv series Ellery Queen (1975-76). There are some, once upon a time, fairly big names which also include Naked City’s (1958-59, 1960-63) Paul Burke (1926-2009 leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) who was also in classics Valley of the Dolls (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)…

Evils of the Night (1987) poster

Neville Brand (1920-92 emphysema) and Aldo Ray (1926-91 throat cancer) are in it and they would appear so memorably together in the dreadfully amusing Evils of the Night (1987) which was produced by the same people who helped put together Psychic Killer. Others in Psychic Killer include Adams’s co-star in Creature from the Black Lagoon, Whit Bissell (1909-96 Parkinson’s disease) as well as Nehemiah Persoff (1919-) and singer Della Reese (1931-2017).

What a cast! And several of them are dispatched in this revenge film, which has Hutton as a mama’s boy who has long been institutionalised for a crime he didn’t commit… only to be finally sprung from the mental hospital despite waking nights screaming and in desperate need of a tranquilliser. He returns to the family home which is now covered in cobwebs, his mother long dead following neglect by her doctor and nurse… They are just a couple of characters who must line up to die!

Jim Hutton in desperate need of a sedative in Psychic Killer (1975)

Hutton possesses, thanks to a friend he met in hospital, and who subsequently jumped off a tall building, an amulet with the power to put himself into a death trance and using astral projection, he can travel to places where he can influence the environment and kill those who have wronged him. All without leaving the room and, apparently, in a state where his heart doesn’t beat and he doesn’t breathe. For all intents and purposes, he is dead, only to revive upon returning to his body after committing his crimes. The first time he awakens is during his own autopsy!

Hutton has projected himself somewhere with intent to kill in Psychic Killer (1975)

If you had the power to take revenge on those who wronged you and your dear departed mother and you could get away with it scot free – wouldn’t you go on a killing spree?!

Psychic Killer is one of the first in the astral travelling to kill movies and Hutton doesn’t visit your dreams as kind of hinted in Insidious and also Andrew Getty’s (1967-2015 intestinal bleeding) The Evil Within (2017) … Further, this astral travelling into people’s dreams was probably best realised in Dreamscape (1984) starring Dennis Quaid (1954-) which had a trained psychic try to assassinate the President of the United States while inside one of his nightmares.

Dreamscape (1984) trailer

These films are relations to Psychic Killer and Nehemiah Persoff’s university lecturer character in the movie suggests that people, since the beginning of time, have seen auras around people…

“Every object has an energy force, an aura around it,” he says. “Many artists claimed to see this aura and painted a halo around people”. Christ for instance!

The aura was first captured on film in Kirlian photography or coronal discharges. This was accidentally discovered by Soviet inventor and researcher Semyon Kirlian (1898-78) in 1939. He discovered that if an object on a photographic plate is connected to a high voltage source, an image was produced on the photo plate which showed this aura.

An example of Kirlian photography

So what, you may say, as electricity passed through a dead frog causes the legs to move?! It’s not alive! Links between the paranormal and psychic energy and Kirlian photography remain rejected by the scientific community to this day. But what is energy and the life-force? And nuclear energy was only discovered last century… Is there another force yet to be discovered by humanity?

Persoff continues in Psychic Killer: “Many of us in parapsychology believe that the energy force in any human can be controlled… and… this energy can be projected… what we call an out of body experience.” Yeah, sure! Yet some say they’ve experienced them.

An out of the body experience from Insidious (2010)

There is another related movie called Out of the Body (1988), which is an Australian film about a murderer who removes the eyes of his or her female victims in supernatural fashion via some psychic phenomenon. There is a character in it who is an astral traveller and he witnesses the murders. Or is it that he was the murderer the whole time? While not a great movie, as a stoned teenager, there were scenes which scared me during a midnight viewing of this film. It’s hard to catch up with these days.

Hutton is astral travelling while his body appears momentarily dead in Psychic Killer (1975)

Anyway, the cop in charge of the case in Psychic Killer is Paul Burke and he is playing almost the same character he played in The Thomas Crown Affair. He’d already had plenty of practice playing a cop in Naked City. He is intrigued along with Hutton’s psychiatrist Adams as Hutton goes on to kill the local butcher because he doesn’t like the price of meat, nor the way he has a habit of putting his finger on the scales to charge extra.

“Arnold, let us help you, please,” pleads Adams after Hutton awakes from the dead after this latest murder. But Hutton is hooked. He finds delight in leaving his body and interfering in the lives and subsequent deaths of others.

The film links some kind of voodoo mumbo jumbo to out of the body experiences at the beginning and the amulet does seem to contain a certain power which gives the film a more fictional take on the possibility of astral travel actually being possible.

An example of a Yogic Flyer

Is it related to Transcendental Meditation as practised by celebrities such as Clint Eastwood? The founder of this movement Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2001 in sleep) claimed that a significant number of individuals, or about one percent, practising the Transcendental Meditation technique of repeating a silent mantra, could have an effect on the local environment, something termed the Maharishi Effect. I won’t go into it as I don’t fully understand it all, but it concerns Yogic Flyers and how this effect can be positive as it could even reduce crime in a community! Mmm more research is needed, let alone proof…

Greydon Clark (left) in Al Adamson’s Satan’s Sadists (1969)

Psychic Killer’s writers Danton along with Greydon Clark (1943-) and Mikel Angel (1926-2001) have turned this idea of possible crime prevention into the worst criminal behaviour. Hutton’s powers can have him make his victims hear voices and kill themselves. Sounds like mental illness may have a cause after all! Are those who suffer a mental illness just open to suggestion and preyed upon by malignant or parasitic psychic or paranormal forces? Maybe aliens live among us who can read our minds? I could go on and on about the theories and possibilities!

Writer Clark was an actor who appeared in cult items Satan’s Sadists (1969), The Mighty Gorga (1969) as well as another Al Adamson movie Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). He also has a role as a cop in Psychic Killer. Later, he would direct Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977), The Return (1980) and Without Warning (1980) which are nearly so bad they’re good. So, the film has further trashy credentials in terms of exploitation and the third screenwriter Angel went on the write the Linda Blair starrer Grotesque (1988) and another fairly ordinary all-star trashy entitled Evil Spirits (1991), which was the final film by Yvette Vickers (1928-2010 arteriosclerosis) in which she plays a neighbour.

Without Warning (1980) trailer

It is ironic that Vickers’s real neighbours didn’t keep an eye on her until cobwebs were seen on her letter box and then her mummified body was found on her kitchen floor over a year after she died! Best known for her appearances in Attack of the 50-foot Woman (1958) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) this former July 1959 Playboy centrefold had Hugh Hefner (1926-2017 sepsis) pay for her funeral and cremation.

The producers of Psychic Killer were trash-meisters and brothers Mardi (1931-) and Mohammad Rustam (no info). The pair produced Tobe Hooper’s (1943-2017 natural causes) Eaten Alive (1976) which many know as a violent and controversial movie which also starred Neville Brand. That one was also written by Mardi who went on to also write Evils of the Night featuring Brand and Ray.

Neville Brand in Eaten Alive (1976)

“I’m a great believer in justice…,” says Hutton somewhere in the movie and in the end, it is cops Burke and Aldo Ray who are judge, jury and executioner when they quickly have Hutton pronounced dead one evening while he is out astral tripping and have him cremated before he can return to his body.

In one of the creepiest moments in the film, as the body is transferred to the crematorium furnace, Hutton visits Adams while she happens to be in his cobwebbed bedroom, his skin peeling like a corpse and wearing a very strange greying wig. Somehow it is effective, as Hutton, who had an unrequited crush on Adams, has just killed Persoff by slashing his throat astral projection style.

Jim Hutton is spooky in the finale of Psychic Killer (1975)

“Now, it’s late, so very, very late… everything I love dies,” says Hutton gasping for breath as the flames start to burn his body miles away… and his screams can be heard coming from the crematorium furnace as he comes back to life.

It’s trash, but I love this movie, even if critic Leonard Maltin only gives in no stars and calls it “ugly”, while another dismissed it as just another Psycho (1960) rip-off.

The film is original though, the cast is game and while there is not real explicit in your face nudity, gore or swearing… Something which must have disappointed viewers at the time… I mean Della Reese is in it and she went on to make the Christian tv series Touched by an Angel (1994-2003)! I bet she wouldn’t have appeared in 1974’s The Exorcist rip-off Abby!! Anyway, many think Psychic Killer complete rubbish, but it’s an almost totally serious early film attempt to link the psychic or paranormal, instead of the supernatural, to horror.

Psychic Killer (1975) trailer

Stephen King published Carrie in 1974 which was around the time Psychic Killer was in production. Was Psychic Killer a quick cash-in after the rights of Carrie were sold for a movie? They are totally different aspects of the paranormal anyway as King’s story is more about telekinesis than astral projection. Or are they the same thing? Meanwhile, The Shining linked the supernatural to psychic power when it was published in 1977. They went mainstream as movies in 1976 and 1980 respectively.

The Fury book cover

While I expect there were probably a plethora of books written on the subject before Psychic Killer and Carrie… as bombastic horror movies they didn’t really exist before then. After Carrie came Brian De Palma’s (1940-) The Fury (1978) and then David Cronenberg’s (1943-) Scanners (1981) which underlined the horrific possibilities of the, still yet, undefinable psychic realm. Oh, the horrors of the unkown…

The opening spiel to Psychic Killer is spoken by director Ray Danton himself: “Why should any phenomenon be assumed impossible? The universe begins to look more and more like a great thought, than a great machine”. It is an apparent quote from physicist Sir James Jeans (1877-1946) whose name is misspelled as Sir James Jean in the movie. He was an agnostic Freemason and like my Freemason maternal grandfather suggested to me, an already cynical 12-year-old: “Nothing is impossible!” Happy astral travelling…

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