Retro Review: The Psycho Lover (1970)
Review by Eric Lefenfeld
Editorial note: This special review is from the Weird Wednesday screening of The Psycho Lover, at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, where writer/director Robert Vincent O’Neill was in attendance.
Everything’s coming up golden for Dr. Kenneth Alden. He’s riding high on a successful psychology career and indulging in the perks that come with such prestige — namely a sleek boat, a futuristic (for 1970) car, and a comely 22 year-old mistress, Stacey, with whom Alden would like to make things legitimate. One problem, though: Dr. Alden’s wife is fully aware of his infidelity, and the scorned woman isn’t going to be letting go of him anytime soon — at least not willingly. Enter Marco, under investigation by the police for a series of brutal stranglings. Alden’s been aiding the interrogation through the use of hypnotic suggestion. A seemingly innocent conversation about The Manchurian Candidate plants a seed in Alden’s head, though, and he decides to use Marco’s hypnotic susceptibility to his own sinister advantage.
The Psycho Lover is one of countless low-budget sex thrillers that were the bread and butter of drive-in culture. History is littered with the filmic ghosts of gratuitous violence, questionable music cues, and bare-breasted go-go dancers. Does this one stand out from the pack? The answer is a resounding yes, thanks to above average proficiency both in front of and behind the camera.
To clarify, the film bears the hallmarks of low budget 70s filmmaking, warts and all. There are several long-winded sequences of blatant filler, namely the ones in which Alden cavorts with Stacy, first on a grass-sledding date (you read that correctly), then in a sculpture garden, and then in a couple of sex scenes. None of it really goes anywhere, but it’s a pleasure to watch, nonetheless. There’s an invigorating sense that writer/director Robert Vincent O’Neill is just throwing all of his creative weight at the wall and hoping everything sticks. “Oh, we have access to a ridiculous looking car with remote controlled doors? Sure, let’s throw it in. Should we be worried that we’re ripping off the plot of The Manchurian Candiate? It’s okay. Just have the characters themselves reference the movie.” And so on.
O’Neill confirmed as much in a post-screening Q&A, saying that his producers cared about little more than having enough nudity to entice audiences. The rest of the story was in his hands, and he took full advantage, as evidenced by the centerpiece of the film — the sequence in which Alden plants his murderous intent in Marco’s mind. It’s a six-minute fever dream complete with a blue-faced devil woman, jagged editing, and copious amounts of female flesh (obviously). It’s delightfully incongruous with the meandering pace of the rest of the film, but that’s just part of the free-wheeling charm.
Nobody goes into a movie like this expecting a master class in acting, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see that the three leads all carry themselves well. Lawrence Montaigne has a low-rent Steve McQueen vibe that serves him well, especially in his icy interactions with his wife, played by Jo Anne Meredith. Their scenes together are cordial, but the resentment is always brimming underneath the surface. It’s a subtle interaction, and not one that would normally be expected in a film of this ilk. Elizabeth Plumb carries herself with a naturalistic, down to earth charm as the young mistress, Stacey. She’s the girl next door who somehow wandered into a seedy exploitation film.
Special mention should be given to David Astor, who only appears in one scene as a gruff lunch counter owner attempting to interact with a dazed Marco. Another post-screening fact reveals that those scenes were pretty much all improvised, as the actor was a stand-up comedian who couldn’t do the same lines more than once. In keeping with his sensibility, though, O’Neill just rolled with it and let the man riff. The results are golden; Astor’s scene is easily one of the most memorable moments of the film.
The Psycho Lover is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it really is much better than it has any right to be — a remnant of time in which low-budget genre filmmaking still existed mostly on the fringes. Sometimes this could lead to duds best left forgotten, but other times the stars would align and bestow a buried treasure upon film-goers. It might be cheap and rough around the edges, but the ambition and creativity is visible in every frame. Most films don’t bear that distinction, regardless of budget, and for that alone The Psycho Lover should be recognized as an unearthed gem.