Psychotronic Ketchup: Blackout (1978)

Director: Eddy Matalon
New World, 1:28, color
Cast Notables: Robert Carradine; Jim Mitchum; Belinda Montgomery; Ray Milland; June Allyson; Jean-Pierre Aumont
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

I would never have given Blackout the time of day if its title hadn't appeared in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.

One of the few negative things about that volume is that it spends an inordinate amount of time with disaster movies. Sure, disaster movies can be fun (especially in an unintentional way), and they certainly fulfill the special effects aspect with which most films of the psychotronic sort find themselves involved. Certainly a case can also be made that disaster movies are not that far removed from monster flicks, with the earthquake or flood or, in this case, the city-wide blackout (and the reaction of the citizenry to its installation) substituting for the giant monster that would normally kill, maim, stop and generally terrify the people of the film.

But that is really pushing it as far as interest goes. After all the big effects used to bring to life the main star of the film -- the disaster itself -- disaster films most often boil down, at least for me, to simply being rote actioners or dramas. Each one seems to exist on a set number of predictable crises that most in the main cast will fail one by one to get past, a series of often poorly acted (often by overrated veteran actors) character scenes that set up the various reasons why this person should live and why this one should die, and one steadfast hero who will lead the survivors through to the end. There might be a modicum of surprising twists, but usually not much that veers too far away from the standard template. In these ways too, disaster films are much like monster films. Only the monster films are far weirder even in just conception, let alone actions, and deserve simply via that weirdness alone a definite place in a book of outré cinema, even the most average of entries in the monster genre. The problem I have with disaster films being in the Psychotronic Guide is that disasters are happening every single day somewhere in this world, natural or man-made. Disasters are a common reality, and therefore, the films concerning them are much, much too far from the usual head trip that a decent psychotronic movie should portray or invoke in the viewer.

Even so, the Psychotronic Encyclopedia has within it Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Rollercoaster is in there, and so are the films in the Airport quartet. Again, because all of these are big-budget, special effects flicks, I can understand the impetus to put them in the book. Other tempting reasons for the author are probably their crazy-quilt, all-star casts, their unintentional humor, and inherent campiness. And I do like some of these films, and not just in an ironic way. I simply don't agree with the decision to put them in the book. I find the movies too stifling banal to go alongside something as goofy as The Hideous Sun Demon. But its not my book, except by purchase, so it was never my decision what to include. The disaster films are in the book all the same, and if I don't really care for them or find them monotonous, well, it's my own fault for coming up with a gimmick like trying to watch every film in the Psychotronic. All I can do is deal with them.

And thus, I run into a plain wanna-be disaster flick called Blackout, from New World Pictures in 1978. And then, once I find Blackout actually is available on DVD (one of the extra steps that is required in seeing these films), per my own rules, I have to rent and watch it.

Blackout has its own version of an all-star cast. It has the son of a real movie star as the dull but earnest hero (Jim Mitchum), it has the brother of two more famous actors as the crazed anarchist villain (Robert Carradine, and he is pretty effective in this), it has two old-timey movie stars in small roles (Ray Milland, one of my favorites and as grumpy as ever, and June Allyson, in her final screen role), and this Canadian production even goes for some international verve with the casting of Gallic film legend Jean-Pierre Aumont in another small, tragic role as a washed-up magician. But that's about it for the phrase "all-star". Unless you count Belinda Montgomery, whom you may not know, but whom I adored as a kid when she played the hottie doctor/love interest of Patrick Duffy on The Man from Atlantis TV series. And unless you count the porky, recognizable guy working in the city electric control center, who chomps his cigar muttering indecipherable epithets and instructions to his crew while all hell breaks loose and the city is plunged into a Stygian darkness.

Blackout is a big-budget disaster action film produced by people who only have about a tenth of the coffers they need to do so. This is fine. I am a tremendous fan of low-budget productions, where tenacity and filmmaking wit can bring about wondrous delight. Not here, though there are a couple of surprisingly tense action scenes (especially the closing battle between Mitchum and Carradine in a parking garage. You can always count on the '70s for some jarringly rough car action.) Needing to portray a citywide blackout without actually having a full city to blackout, the filmmakers place most of the concentration of their film on a single hi-rise tower, where a group of criminals who use the advantage of the blackout to escape from a police van, run amok and torment the mostly helpless people trapped inside the building. Mitchum is the tough cop who practically stumbles onto this rampage, and it is hard to not think of Die Hard when watching this, even if the films are miles apart in execution and design. Or quality, for that matter.

Cop Mitchum will do the following once he enters the building: rescue rape victim Montgomery and enlist her aid, while she is clearly in shock from being ravaged mere moments before; discover people trapped in an elevator; shoot down the rapist; mistakenly take Carradine into his trust; escape from being electrocuted; put out a fire; and also singlehandedly battle the entire gang, including most of the members in solo duels. It seems like a lot for one guy to handle in a single evening -- almost a cop version of After Hours, stuck inside one loony building which almost seems to stand in as a miniaturization of any point in the human universe -- but there is so much more in which he could have been involved. A baby is born amongst all this chaos, the child of the lady trapped in the elevator starts wandering throughout the building, and there is a Greek wedding on a higher floor that decides that the only way to get through all of this is to party, party, party! And people get murdered here and there.

A sharper group of filmmakers could have actually done something with this that didn't feel so by the book at every turn. (I think of how tense and muscular John Carpenter made what could have been a generic Rio Bravo rip in Assault on Precinct 13.) Once you accept just how cynical and unforgiving these criminals are, and once you get their individual tics down, all surprise is erased from the script. You know exactly where everything is going to end up, and you know who is going to live and who is going to die. In their effort to be part of the disaster trend of that era, in replicating the vapidity and predictability of their predecessors, the makers of Blackout probably considered their barely interesting product to be a success. It is certainly so if they indeed made money off this project. There is no art involved here, just commerce. That's not a crime, especially in the movie-making world, and if you are looking for filler when there are so many more entertaining things surrounding us -- well, if you are that type of person, then look no further. Consider your time filled and your standards average.

But this film is in no way "psychotronic." Perhaps I will just use some Liquid Paper to excise it and its boring ilk from the book once I am finished "accidentally" seeing films that shouldn't be in there. No one said I can't decide which films should be in the book after I've bought it...

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