January 12, 2012
The psycho killer has long been one of the obvious staples of the horror genre. What could be more frightening than an unstoppable madman preying on innocent and unsuspecting victims? How about an unstoppable madman who has mastered the art of invisibility? In 1976, television director John Florea (who directed episodes of both “CHiPs” and “Sea Hunt”) asked the question in a feature-length sci-fi cop show called The Astral Factor.
The Astral Factor stars Frank Ashmore (from Airplane! and “V”) as Roger Sands, a convicted murderer also known as the “Celebrity Strangler,” who, while in jail, teaches himself psychic skills that give him extraordinary powers. One of the powers he develops is telekinesis, or the power to move objects with his mind, which he demonstrates by incapacitating a fellow inmate. Another talent he learns is invisibility, allowing him to escape from prison undetected. Once out, he follows a young woman home and strangles her in the bathtub. Lieutenant Charles Barrett (Robert Foxworth, the voice of Ratchet in the Transformers movies) and his partner Detective Holt (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s Mark Slade) are dispatched to the scene, and the pair soon learns that Sands has escaped and is going after the women who testified against him during his trial. The pair splits up, Barrett checking up on socialite Chris Hartman (the legendary Elke Sommer from A Shot in the Dark) while Holt tracks down dancer Roxane Raymond (real-life dancer Renata Vaselle). After finding out that both women are fine, Barrett and Holt interview Sands’ psychiatrist, who explains that Sands’ victims have all been reminiscent of his first casualty, his mother, and every woman he strangles makes him feel like he’s killing her again. Sands’ doctor also reveals Sands’ interest in the paranormal, and warns the police that he may have extrasensory gifts. Barrett and Holt scoff at the theory, until their first run-in with Sands when they realize that the doctor is right, and they will have their hands full re-capturing Sands and saving the women.
The Astral Factor was written by Arthur C. Pierce (who wrote such sci-fi classics as Invasion of the Animal People, Mutiny in Outer Space and Women of the Prehistoric Planet), and the script as written is a cross between a hard-boiled detective story and a tribute to classic film noir mystery. Most of the actors have television backgrounds, and they try to make their performances simultaneously sexy and dramatic (“Hart to Hart” sexpot Stephanie Powers even plays Barrett’s wife, Candy). The opening escape scene is as corny as a dark and twisted Sid & Marty Krofft children’s program. There are even a few hilarious dance numbers peppered throughout the film that add to the cheesiness. Even with all of the unintentional humor, The Astral Factor is an ingenious story that, despite the tongue-in-cheek production and on-the-nose dialogue, still comes off as suspenseful and tense. As silly as the concept seems, the idea that a dangerous criminal could escape from prison by simply turning invisible and walking out is terrifying, especially when he is as creepy as Roger Sands.
With his psychotic tendencies and mommy issues, Sands is an archetypical serial killer. Even though the audience knows exactly where he is and what he’s going to do, the victims don’t, and that’s what makes his murders fun to watch. Not only are Sands’ victims completely oblivious to his presence, they continue to be confused even when their throat is in his grasp and the life is being choked out of them – they feel his hands but can’t see their attacker. Except for one murder where Sands inexplicably wears a wetsuit (?), he’s invisible during each assault. As silly as the killings may look on the surface, because they are not overdone, each one is actually a fine bit of acting by each young lady.
The special effects in The Astral Factor were handled by pyrotechnic genius Roger George (one of Roger Corman’s right hand men who went on to work on The Terminator and The Howling). There aren’t a whole lot of pyrotechnics in The Astral Factor, but there are some other clever visual effects. Most of the effects involve Sands disappearing and reappearing, and the process looks a lot like the transporter beaming on the classic “Star Trek” series. Another often-used effect is Sands’ power of telekinesis, which he controls by flashing stars out of his eyes at whatever he wants to focus on. The special effects look primitive, even for the pre-Star Wars era of 1976, but that’s what audiences can expect from Roger George on a budget, and they give the film a cool look and a fun vibe.
The Astral Factor actually exists in two forms. At 96 minutes, the final film is 10 minutes longer than the original cut, which was called The Invisible Strangler. Editor Bud S. Isaacs (a veteran T.V. editor who did “Helter Skelter” and “Brian’s Song”) took The Invisible Strangler and put together a more cohesive film, sometimes pulling discarded shots off of the cutting room floor. In the shorter version, Sands is hardly ever seen and never talks. The music is also completely different in the two versions of the film. The original score was done by Bill Marx (Scream, Blacula Scream), and it was later added to by Richard Hieronymus (The Forest) and Alan Oldfield (The Fear: Resurrection) in 1984. The result is a curious mishmash of retro sixties lounge music, kitschy seventies slow jams and moody eighties synthesizer soundtrack music that, surprisingly, works well for the sci-fi cop movie. Elke Sommer even whips out a nice version of Lead Belly’s “In the Pines” that is a stripped-down break from the electronic score. The soundtrack is disjointed, but so is the movie, and they fit well together.
The Astral Factor suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It doesn’t know if it should be a horror film or a crime drama, so it plays as a little of both. It’s a good mixture of the two, and while it may not make anyone check under their bed before they go to sleep, it definitely will have people looking twice at unexplained noises in their house.
**Watch The Astral Factor Now on Instant Streaming at Netflix.**