Skip to main content

Hipster Holy Grail: The Power (1984)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I'd love to say The Power is a charming, low-key horror movie that calls back to a simpler time, but I'd be lying if I said it was worth digging up.  Major fans of the genre might enjoy a few scenes here or there and bad movie fans might find some laughs from time to time, but overall this is just too lifeless, too confusing, and, most mysteriously of all, too bloodless.  No hidden treasure this week.

My Rating: 2 / 5 (VBM)

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Ah, The Power.  What a dumb plot.

I don't mean to immediately get into the negativity like this, but it's hard to start summarizing a movie that's so poorly structured and edited.  It's like trying to give a secondhand account of somebody else's rant.  You're pretty sure you'll hit the important points, but you don't know that you'll get across the experience.

So, let's just try it on a molecular level.  Here's what happens in the movie, though it's hard to explain why.

First, we open in a college lecture hall.  A stodgy professor is telling his students about the history of dark magic and makes a point of describing The Idol, a tiny clay statue that is imbued with terrific and horrifying powers.

(Quick aside: what the hell kinda class is this, anyway?  The students seem bored and unimpressed, so I imagine it must be a 101... so what subject could possibly merit an hour long lecture on the history of the dark arts?  Is he a really bad Sociology professor?  Is he just a lunatic?  I'm not saying you can't teach students about demonology, but I'm pretty sure that's a topic you reserve for your 301 students who actually give a shit.)

The students don't really buy it and a nerdy kid openly scoffs.  So the professor turns on his Evil Eyes and uses psychic powers to make the nerd's nose bleed.  This was actually kind of funny and made me think the movie was going to be entertaining.  In fact, I'd pay good money to see 80 minutes of an angry professor using demon powers to mildly inconvenience and bother his students.  Kinda like Ghoulies III, only without the turd monsters.  Somebody get on that.

Anyway, the class ends and another guy, Francis Lott, comes to visit the professor.  They exchange some ambiguous words about The Idol and its powers.  Lott asks to see it and the professor declines.  The professor goes on to say that he has it under control and that nobody else appreciates it.  Lott leaves in a huff and The Idol summons demon powers to impale the professor on a flag staff.

That prologue is by far the best part of the movie, but unfortunately, it's kind of like an unrelated short film.  The movie abruptly shifts from here to some place in the Mexican desert where Lott is tracking down a shaman who has The Idol.  And here's where I have to admit that I might just not have been paying attention, because I have no idea how The Idol went from the professor down to Mexico.  Did somebody take it?  Did the professor not actually have it in the first place and I only thought he did?  Who the hell knows.  The movie's bad at editing.

Lott sits down with the shaman and they have more nebulous words about The Idol and its powers, only this time you get the ambiguity through subtitles.  The shaman warns Lott that he cannot see The Idol or he will fall victim to its charms, but has no problem at all letting Lott stay in his home for the night.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Lott gets up and tries to steal a peek at The Idol.  It makes a lot of noise and freaks him out, and ostensibly kills him.

Okay, so now we cut from that to White Town, USA, where a few kids are planning to have a spooooooky night by sneaking into a creepy basement to dick around with a Ouija board.  The ringleader appears to be a spirited teenager girl named Julie, and her compatriots are two interchangeable dweebs by the names of Matt and Tommy.  Julie has asked that each of them bring a charm to protect them from evil spirits.

Tommy, in his ultimate wisdom, has brought The Idol as his charm.  He says his parents bought it in Mexico and heard it was a good luck charm.  Now, this... this is really stupid.  How does this tie into what we've seen so far?  It doesn't make any sense.  Who sold it to Tommy's parents?  And why?  Was the shaman so hard up for cash that week he decided it was okay to part with it?

"I really shouldn't put this evil out into the world... but I'm so far behind on my rent this month.  Sigh.  Oh, well, it's just some white people.  Here you go!"

And if The Idol can tempt people so easily, how is that Tommy's parents haven't snapped already and started freaking out?  Why aren't they constantly making Tommy's nose bleed any time he annoys them?

Well, whatever.  Tommy has The Idol.  Hooray.

The kids get scared by some ouija antics and run away from the basement.  A night watchman hears them and comes down to investigate.  Somehow, even though The Idol is not present, it manages to haunt the basement and kill the watchman through a series of improbable events that make him slip and fall under a heavy rock that's suspended over his head by a weak rope and pulley, which he briefly holds onto, but loses his grip.  I'm sure this is confusing to read.  Trust me: it was confusing to watch.

We cut to a news room where we meet Sandy, a journalist who occasionally covers weird stories.  Sandy has just recently written an article on the watchman who died in the basement.  She seems annoyed with her editor, and makes one or two comments about not wanting to embellish facts, but otherwise she has no personality to speak of.

Sandy goes home and finds that her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Jerry, is waiting for her in her living room.  Instead of being creeped out that he just let himself in, she greets him with a hug and offers to let him live with her for a few days.

We cut back to Tommy, who's hanging out in his bedroom and getting ready to eat a hamburger.  (He also has a half-eaten pickle arbitrarily laying on his desk, which is not important at all, but I found it weird and couldn't stop staring.)  He has The Idol on his desk and pokes at it a little bit, then starts studying.  Suddenly, a bunch of paperclips start moving toward The Idol as if by magnetic force.  Then his pickle moves toward The Idol.  Then his window starts rattling and evil psychic wind starts blowing.

Tommy freaks out and hides in a corner while The Idol trashes his room: it blows up his window, sets his stereo on fire, unwinds all of his cassette tapes, and throws trash and debris everywhere.  Then it calms down and Tommy does what any reasonable person would do: he buries it in his backyard.

(You know, I don't think I noticed this until now, but we never see Tommy's mom or dad.  Why didn't they come check on him when his window blew out?  Tommy's got some shit parents, man.)

Cut back to Sandy's apartment, where Jerry is hanging out and reading a paper.  Somebody calls, and he answers the phone - it's Julie.  She's ready Sandy's article about the dead night watchman and wants to give more background info since she and her friends were at the scene right before he died.  Sandy is unavailable, though, so Jerry just takes a message and decides to meet up with the kids later.

This all culminates in a scene in Sandy's office where Jerry, having heard the kids' accounts of The Idol making spoooooky things happen, tries to convince Sandy to do an article about The Idol.  She refuses because she thinks it's nonsense, but Jerry's really into it.  He asks to keep The Idol so he can investigate it on his own.

And now we finally enter the part of the movie that could best be described as Act II.  You hear that?  You read this far, and it's only now that you know what this goddamn movie's about.  How's that for some crappy pacing?

For the next half hour or so, we basically just follow Jerry around as he slowly succumbs to the power of The Idol.  He learns bits and pieces about it - all nebulous, of course, because the movie could never deign to give you any useful information - but keeps hitting dead ends with his research.  Then one night Sandy has a terrible nightmare and The Idol trashes her place.  Instead of putting Jerry off, this only reaffirms his belief in The Idol's powers and makes him want to learn more about it than ever before.

At one point he puts The Idol on a desk and starts talking to it.  He commands it to show him its powers.  Nothing happens... but then, later that night, he looks in the mirror and sees that his face has become contorted and weird.  He's transforming into some kind of horrible monster - he's becoming possessed by The Idol.  Oh nooooooo!!!!

His possession is kind of lame, to be honest.  He doesn't really do a whole lot after becoming The Idol's slave.  He mainly just mopes around.  He doesn't even stay in his monster form; it comes and goes depending on the makeup artist's mood that day.

There is one scene where you see him attack one of Sandy's friends, but it's actually more comical than it is terrifying.  He grabs her and shoves her hand in a garbage disposal, and then the movie cuts away - which is really for the best, because honestly, where do you go from there?  You can't fit a whole person down a garbage disposal.  They're just not that strong.  I bet he maybe got her down to her elbow, but then either the rest of her arm wouldn't fit or the disposal would get stuck.  And either way, she wouldn't necessarily die right away, she'd just be standing there, screaming while she bled out.  It would be gross and sad, but not scary.  It's an impractical way to kill somebody, is what I'm saying.

(Quick side note: As dumb as this scene is, the movie needed more of it.  Not garbage disposals necessarily, but just death overall.  The body count is surprisingly low for a horror movie.)


Eventually everybody else figures out that Jerry has been compromised, so they team up to destroy The Idol.  Julie and Sandy end up getting trapped in a life-or-death chase through Sandy's house while Jerry, in full monster form, screams and breaks stuff.  Just before Monster Jerry can kill either of them, Julie smashes The Idol, and Jerry flails around helplessly.  His body bulges out and bleeds horribly in what appears to be the only scene with a budget for special effects.  So, he's dead.

Cut to three years later.  Julie is working at a library and seems to be trying to get over the horror of The Idol.  However, she's being stalked by Francis Lott - apparently, he didn't die earlier.  However, his face is disfigured; he's been partially monsterized and it seems he's stuck that way.  He also walks with a limp and needs a cane to get around.

Lott has tracked Julie down because she figures heavily into a book Sandy wrote about The Idol, and he wants to warn her that "The Power cannot be destroyed."  Julie goes to her car to cry, and Lott - apparently feeling remorseful for being too spooooooky - goes to comfort her.  But when she looks up from the steering wheel.... she's actually a monster!  And she kills Lott!  AAAAAAAHHHH!

The Part About Story Structure / Now I'm Going To Be a Dick

This is not a very well told story.  Not at all.

The movie itself isn't actually all that bad.  It's too poorly lit in some scenes and occasionally looks cheap, but for the most part, I actually dug the direction, acting, and music.  It's got a sort of Americanized Hammer Films vibe.  There was a lot of potential for this to be an overlooked classic.

But the story is so opaque it ends up being virtually unwatchable.  Every scene raises more questions than it answers and I just ended up feeling confused more than scared.

It's time for me to once again rail about story structure.  I feel like for as much as I keep using that phrase, I don't ever define it.  Now's actually a good opportunity because The Power is basically a case study for what not to do.

What I mean by "structure" is this.  All stories can be boiled down to a beginning and an end.  (You can take a surrealist / dadaist / solipsistic approach and say that beginnings and endings don't exist, but your audience is still going to start watching at some point and stop watching at another, so let's put aside the philosophical trappings for a minute.) The only thing "structure" means is how you plan to connect those points.

Maybe you want one really long scene, or maybe you want a billion small ones.  Maybe you want to be fancy and rearrange the chronology, or maybe you want to have branching paths, or maybe you want to throw in some false clues or distractions, or maybe you're not trying to build a narrative and instead you're just trying to create visuals.  At the end of the day, you're still just going from Point A to Point B.

Good structure just means that the audience can understand that connection in some way.  Maybe it's because your story is so tightly constructed that each scene logically follows a cause and effect string all the way to the end.  Maybe it's because you just use visual cues, music, and effects to paint an effective mood.  Maybe the audience has questions, maybe not, but we understand that something important has happened between A and B.

Bad structure just means that the audience gets lost.  We're not sure what's important and what isn't.  We'll take detours that circle us right back around to where we started and there's no enrichment.  It's like being in a maze that you never actually finish - you just run out of time and somebody airlifts you out of it with a credit roll.

The Power never connects the beginning with the end.  Sure, you figure out that The Idol has some nebulous powers that are deadly... but there's not a central conflict.  There's some side conflicts that come up now and again, but they aren't built up well enough to hang onto.  The best way I can describe the plot is, "A bunch of bad shit happens, and also here's Jerry."

The Power is so bad at structure, I don't even know who the protagonist is.  Jerry gets the most screen time, so maybe it's supposed to be his tragic descent into madness.  But he's introduced so late and he's clearly painted as the slasher movie antagonist by the end.  Sandy is too much of a victim and too minor a character to be the protagonist, and Julie gets too little screen time to fill that role, either.  So, the movie doesn't have a protagonist.

You might think it's just the misadventures of The Idol - sort of a Lovecraftian horror travelogue.  But even The Idol doesn't get enough screen time to be the central figure.  And it doesn't go to enough places to be a globe-trotting horror story.  So really it's just a loose collection of events that happen around The Idol.

Even just pinning down the logistics of how The Idol is getting around is an arduous task.  It kills the night watchman in that basement, but then it winds up in Tommy's bedroom somehow.  We see him bury it, but since he just ends up handing it over to Jerry two scenes later, anyway, there's no reason to see the burial.  The Idol just shows up whenever the movie wants to remind us it's still there.

Scenes don't segue into one another.  The movie has two prologues and an epilogue, none of which factor into each other or into the main story.  There's a party scene where Jerry tries to get other people interested in his Idol research, but nobody cares and he doesn't gain any information.  There's a scene where Julie reads about voodoo, but she doesn't do anything with it.  Nothing matters.

Hell, The Room has better structure than this.  At least in that movie I know that Johnny is a good guy and he's struggling with his manipulative fiancee.

And on top of all that, I don't understand what exactly the titular Power actually is.  Let's get into that.

The Part About the Power(s)

Only a couple of weeks ago, in my review of Nomads, I wrote a little bit about how I wished the movie had taken the time and effort to better explain what the nomads' powers were.  The Power brings to mind a similar complaint, but the difference this time around is that I know exactly what The Idol's powers are - I just don't understand how they are.

Or, to put it another way, this movie is really bad at following its own rules.

First things first: are kids immune?  Early on, when Lott visits the shaman, we learn that he has a child hide the idol each night so that adults have no idea where it is.  The reasoning is explicitly given: children are immune to the idol's "charms."  So, okay, kids can't be lured into acting evil at the behest of the idol.

...but what does that mean practically?

Can kids still be killed by The Idol?  Like, maybe they won't turn into brainless servants, but can The Idol still throw a pair of scissors across the room and jab it in their neck?  And what's the cut-off age for "child?"  Is it defined by puberty?  Is it a specific birthday?  Is it more of a philosophical decision depending on the individual's attitude toward the world?

There's no attempt to explain any of that, and it gets even more frustrating because so many of the characters are teenagers.  For example, Tommy is never seen submitting to The Idol's charms, so I assume he falls under the "child" definition.  But the idol totally tries to kill him - there's that scene in his bedroom where it steals his pickle and makes his window blow up.  Or is that scene just meant to be The Idol scaring him?  Is The Idol allowed to break everything as long as it doesn't directly kill Tommy?  And if that's the case, then why even have the rule?

And how does The Idol manage to possess Julie at the very end?  She's the same age as Tommy and is unaffected by The Idol for the whole movie, so I'd assume she's also a "child," right?  But at some point in the brief time between when Julie first sees The Idol and when she tries to destroy it, The Idol works its way into her body and turns her into its puppet?  So... what happened?  Did she become a woman right when she was trying to kill it?  That was a big day for her.  First she has her first period, then she has to destroy an ancient demon spirit, then she gets possessed?  Lame.

Or... I guess when she destroyed The Idol, she just freed the spirit and it possessed her body.  But we don't get the possession reveal until three years after The Idol was destroyed.  She's not even doing anything glamorous when we see her at the end - she's working at a library.  So what the hell does that mean the demon spirit's been doing all this time?  He just really enjoys public services?  What the flying fuck, The Power?

Hell, I don't even understand why it has to possess anybody in the first place.  Jerry makes a big deal about it when he starts going insane - he taunts the idol and tells it to show off its magic, then he scoffs and says, "I see... you need a vessel to work your magic!  You can't do anything on your own!"  Except that it's totally been doing shit on its own for the whole goddamn movie up to this point!  Tommy's stereo didn't set itself on fire, now, did it?

So, which is it, movie?  Can the idol do things on its own?  Does it need to possess a body?  Does it have limits?  Does it turn you insane?  Was everything we saw a hallucination?  Or are you just making shit up as you go along?

The Part Where I Kind of Recommend It, Anyway

This is a terrible movie and I don't recommend that most people watch it.

Most people.  Bad movie fans may still get some joy out of it.

The one redeeming feature - if you can call it that - is that it's so clunkily put together, it excels at its failure.  Not many movies actually reach this level of density and inanity.  It almost looks like a cohesive movie at first since it makes use of horror tropes as a throughline, but the minute you try to think about it, you fall down the rabbit hole.

Ordinarily I would say that falling is a bad thing.  But once in awhile it can be kind of a fun feeling.  Once in awhile you can get a charge from feeling totally baffled and mystified.  If that sounds like a good evening, then by all means, check it out.

Where You Can Watch

If you hurry before it gets pulled for copyright infringement, you can watch The Power on Youtube.

All the Other Nonsense That Got Pushed Off the Main Page (Post Archive)

Show more