ESP is one of the most fascinating concepts ever to fail at the box office. It just appears impossible to make any kind of metaphysical perception appreciable to an audience. Instead of coming off as serious, the usual dreamscape imagery applied to the ideas materializes as pretentious and silly in practice, and so-called 'psychics' have become the laughing stock of Scareville. When precognition and clairvoyance are on the cinematic menu, people usually scoff in bleary-eyed disbelief. They've seen it all before, usually on Jerry Springer or some other less than reliable entertainment showcase, and can't be bothered by someone channeling the spirit of a 9th Century warrior king who knew that Kennedy was going to be assassinated.
This means that anyone traipsing the trance trail faces quite an uphill struggle. He or she has to get the audience in their corner, convince them of their character's connection to "the other side" and then pull out all the stops to make sure the precarious plotline doesn't implode upon impact. Such is the case with filmmaker Robert Allen Schnitzer and his unconventional creep out, The Premonition. Positioning himself as the arty answer to the more 'slice and dice' style of horror films, Schnitzer sees this film as the culmination of all his aesthetic goals. He deals with a subject he's fascinated by, the film was relatively well received when it was released, and it ended up making money for everyone involved. If success is measured in dollar signs and individual idiosyncrasies, The Premonition is a major triumph. But as a 70s fright flick, this slow, scattershot movie leaves a lot to be desired.
After she's released from a mental institution, unstable Andrea seeks out her old hospital friend Jude, who is now a carnival clown. Hoping to locate the daughter she gave up for adoption five years before, Andrea hopes her pal has some information. Just her luck, Jude has taken a photo of a local child, Janie, who is the spitting image of Andrea's lost baby. Fixating on the girl, Andrea discovers that she's now living with Prof. Miles Bennett and his wife Sheri. No sooner has the psycho stepped into their life, than Sheri starts having portents of evil. She sees Andrea haunting her dreams. Eventually, the crazy woman breaks into her house and tries to kidnap Janie. But the plan backfires, and the resulting violence that ensues leaves Sheri shaken, Janie vulnerable and Andrea in a position of seeking some supernatural revenge. It will take the help of a parapsychologist to get to the bottom of all these omens. However all Sheri has to protect her and her child is The Premonition.
There will be several times throughout The Premonition when you await the familiar strains of Burt Bacharach's "Nikki". Those in the know will instantly recall that this obscure tune was lifted by a certain network to act as the theme for its weekly foray into TV filmmaking. Indeed, the ABC Movie of the Week would be nothing without the bouncy, brassy piece. The Premonition could actually use a little of the American Broadcasting Company's filmic philosophy. Whether it was chimney dwelling gnomes kicking Kim Darby's butt in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark or that ultimate example of pure puppet evil, the Zuni Fetish Warrior from Trilogy of Terror, the small screen scare show (the vast majority of the movies were horror/sci-fi/thrillers after all) absolutely understood how to chill and shock with minimal production value and strict censorship codes. Director/co-writer Robert Allen Schnitzer didn't have quite as many roadblocks to overcome. But this low budget psychological suspense show could have used some of the boob tubes ability to frighten without flummoxing the audience.
This is a very confusing movie, one made even more maddening by its reliance on the then novel elements of ESP and the paranormal in place of a straightforward narrative. We are supposed to shudder in unbridled terror as visions appear, vibrations are felt and the subconscious makes itself known to the normal world. Back when demonic possession was new, when extra sensory perception was viewed as the next big breakthrough in metaphysical science, such an idea would be unnerving. Heck, people wet themselves when Uri Gellar bent a spoon on prime time television. Of course now, we've learned that such psychic histrionics were mostly old magicians tricks, slight of hand for a very gullible nation. The Premonition isn't trying for deception, however. It actually wants to marry the more traditional concept of a crazy mother searching for the child she lost/adoptive parents fearing for the safety of their baby with serious scientific mumbo-jumbo about astral projections and quantum mechanics. If it sounds confusing as part of this explanation, just imagine what it looks like lumbering across the screen for 93 minutes.
Actually, The Premonition is not that bad. It is merely a movie of inferences. To a mind more attuned to the tell-all aspects of post-modern horror moviemaking, such suggested sentiments can come across as kind of dull. This is not a film of action but of reaction. We must count on the characters to convince us of the danger all around, and naturally, this requires actors able to successfully sell the shivers. Luckily, Schnitzer has quite a cast on hand to provide the believability. As the harried mother whose always seeing things, Sharon Farrell gives excellent exasperation. Though she tends to go over the top on occasion, you can really sense the conviction in her devotion to her daughter. As usual, Richard Lynch makes a completely eerie villain, trading on his tenuous looks to create another convincing bad guy. As the unhinged lady whose childless life is becoming more and more unbearable, Ellen Barber is just plain bizarre. She turns the insanity up and down so readily that you naturally fear her next mood swing. Even in the thankless role of Det. Lt. Mark Denver, nothing more than an exposition catalyst, the late Jeff Corey does a decent, down to earth job.
So if it's not the story's fault, and the actors can't be blamed, it appears the responsibility for this less than winning scare show falls mainly on the shoulders of Schnitzer. With only two other major motion pictures to his name, the Sylvester Stallone as a student activist folly Rebel (a.k.a. No Place to Hide) and Kandyland, Schnitzer was not known for his ability to helm a film. And by its very definition, The Premonition was going to be one tough cinematic cookie. Any filmmaker would have to balance reality with unreality to both convince and confuse the audience. Dream states had to be interchangeable with daily life so that the characters' agitation and anger could be felt through the screen. Unfortunately, Schnitzer is not so skilled. He leaves important plot elements dangling, never completely convinces us of the truth behind our main character's trauma, and allows ludicrous tangents to trip up his logic. Instead of emphasizing the incredibly shoddy police work (our detective asks a prime suspect two questions before being easily dissuaded to speak to someone else) or the brain bending aspects to his advantage, he leaves them as obvious flaws.
Then there is the routine randomness of his style. One scene may be dramatic, the next lightly comic. A third may have us on the edge of our seat, while the fourth completely destroys the rhythm and flow of all that came before. We will have a sensational suspense sequence (Sheri's car windows ice up, causing an accident) and then have said send-up fail to give us closure and/or payoff. Next thing we know, we're into another sequence with everyone acting as if the previous plotpoints never existed. Schnitzer spends inordinate amounts of time on oddball elements (Lynch gets to do a languid mime workout over the opening credits) and cuts shorts scene that could increase the angst. Indeed, this is a filmmaker soaring via his own arcane flight plan, and he's not about the share his strategy outright. Instead, he makes The Premonition a very insular experience, the kind of movie that stages its finale during a harpsichord concert in the middle of a government plaza. Sometimes, Schnitzer's ideas have to be seen to be believed.
That is why, despite all its drawbacks, The Premonition is a recommended respite. Certainly there have been better horror and psychological thrillers foisted upon the public, and often time, this movie appears to be speaking to a particular kind of viewer who obviously never ever showed up for this exact screening. But you will still find yourself entranced by some of the performances and a few of the paranormal elements sort of work. Schnitzer should be ecstatic that some fright flicks get by on mood, atmosphere and mere chutzpah alone. In essence, this is all The Premonition has going for it. Taking a standard kidnapping story and flanking it with all manner of ESP freak-outs is certainly the 70s way of creating the creepy crawlies. But in the far more cynical days of 2005, such mindf*ck foolishness just doesn't work all that well. We've seen to many twist ending experiments to be deceived by pure psychic power alone. There are parts of The Premonition that play rather well. But don't forget this particular omen - you may not find the general experience all that pleasant.
Offered in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Media Blasters presentation of The Premonition looks pretty good for a low budget movie made nearly 30 years ago. Certainly some of the colors are faded, and the film has a few scrapes and scratches here and there. But overall, the transfer is top notch, giving a true obscurity a new, near pristine lease on life.
There are three distinct aural offerings one can choose from when viewing The Premonition. Unless you're from a Hispanic country, the Spanish Dolby Digital Mono may not mean much to you. The original English Dolby Digital Mono is here as well, and it's as flat and tinny as one expects from such a technically limited format. Media Blasters has redesigned and remastered the soundtrack, enhancing the film with what it calls a new "psychotic sound" 5.1 mix. This third option is the obvious way to go. It places foley elements into the outer channels to supply some immersion, and amplifies the bass in most of the musical interludes. Thanks to the combination of lower register retrofitting and some incredibly unnerving shrieking by star Lynch (his growling groans are really unearthly) we have a nice, innovative auditory experience.
Proving once again that they have a complete handle on added feature fulfillment, Media Blasters lards The Premonition with several sensational bonuses. First up is a full length audio commentary by director Schnitzer. This is a man who is very, very proud of the cinematic child he gave birth to three decades ago, and can't expend enough energy praising and explaining it. He goes overboard at the beginning, spending far too much time in the esoteric elements of the story and not enough on how the film was made. Once he's had his say, however, he does eventually get to the nuts and bolts, delivering a detailed account of the location and the shoot. There is a lot more here than in the 5 minute interview that's also part of the extras. Schnitzer has aged well, but his simple narrative monologue ("I did this...then I did this...and then this happened") is rather uninvolving.
Much better is the Q&A with star Richard Lynch. Looking incredibly spooky in his old age, the bravura performer uses this screen time to wax poetic over his entire career. For nearly 30 minutes, he name checks old "friends" like Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, laments those "stars" who wanted to make money in stead of art, and generally finds more and more inventive ways to flex his formidable ego. It's a real treat to see him in such an agreeably arrogant mode. Along with a series of trailers, TV spots and a photo gallery, this is an excellent package that really helps to provide context and clarity for the film it accompanies.
While it's easy to dismiss The Premonition as nothing more than some artsy, fartsy fright, the truth is a little more complicated. This is a movie that will certainly get under your skin and leave a lasting impression in your psyche. As you revisit some of its more outrageous ideas, the flaws lessen and the entertainment value grows. While it is not a masterpiece, it is not an outright failure either. It exists in a metaphysical zone all its own. Audience members can tune in and out at random, taking from it what they want while leaving other elements to their own derivative devices. One thing is for sure - Robert Allen Schnitzer confirms that ESP just doesn't do well on film. His attempts at haunting visions are more hokey than visceral, and occasionally play like badly edited sequences stuck in the middle of otherwise casual conversations. But at least he is willing to try, to place his proclivities up on the screen for the world to enjoy - or eviscerate. That is why you should give this film a spin. It will act like a litmus test toward your terror tendencies. If you buy into it, the Me Decade has a whole catalog of telepathic presents for you. It was that kind of era, after all.
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