The year is 1976 and the place is a beach in the Middle East, where secret agent Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) is enjoying a swim with his teenage son, Robin (Andrew Stevens). Once on the sand, they kid around until fellow agent Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) mildly asks them to stop, and they go up to the nearest open air bar for a drink. Robin is worried about starting a new school back in the United States, but his father tells him not to worry and despite his special talents he should fit in fine. All of a sudden Arab terrorists appear, letting off machine guns, with Peter and Robin separated; while his son is shielded by Childress, Peter is trapped in an alcove under heavy fire, so when he makes a break for the nearest boat and heads off at speed, Robin is horrified to see the craft blown up. Is Peter dead? And exactly what are those special talents?
Well, if you saw director Brian De Palma's previous film Carrie you'll have a pretty good idea. In that film, Sissy Spacek was the one with the uncontrollable psychic powers, here her schoolmate Amy Irving, as Gillian, is the one cursed with such abilities, along with Robin. John Farris adapted his own Carrie-inspired novel for the screenplay, which relies heavily on violent setpieces that are presented in an over-the-top, bad taste fashion even by the standards of De Palma. It was also part of star Douglas' run of science fiction and horror movies, perhaps taking his cue from Charlton Heston earlier in the decade, though Douglas' choices tended towards the trashier. Nevertheless, he takes every opportunity to appear without his shirt, apparently not knowing that by this time playing the action hero was starting to look a little embarrassing at his age (see Tough Guys for a further trail down this route).
Of course Peter isn't dead, he's escaped just quickly enough to shoot scheming Childress in the arm, disabling him and causing Cassavetes to spend the rest of the film wearing a sling and a sinister black glove, as if to underline the fact that, yes folks, this is the baddie. To complicate matters, Farris doesn't seem sure whose side we're supposed to be on, and the psychic kids (for which there is no explanation given) are either a great way to beat the bad guys or a terrifying force for chaos and possibly evil. Robin has been spirited away to a top secret mansion where scientists can run tests on him, although what use they could possibly put the petulant boy to is unclear, and it's up to Peter to track him down. Douglas is entertainingly driven in his sequences, with snappy lines like "I killed it with a machine gun!" (referring to Childress' arm) alternating with highlights like a car chase through fog.
On the down side, the story leads nowhere except those gory moments, and Irving is by turns too wholesome and too whiny to suggest her dark side as Gillian is sent to an apparently benign school for psychics but is actually heading for the same fate as Robin, who she has a mind over matter link with through various visions. De Palma shows his skill in the big scenes, patently relishing Robin going nuts with jealousy at a fairground and killing 1970s American hate figures (i.e. some Arabian oil shieks) or spinning one character round so much that all her blood flies out. Subtle this isn't, but sympathetic it isn't either and the stretches between such mayhem are somewhat dull, with nobody you're especially interested in seeing get anywhere. It's all leading up to a ludicrous punchline after most of the cast has been ruthlessly pruned away, which reveals that the whole film is about pleasing those who only want to see the spectacle. To be fair, they couldn't have ended the movie a better way. Music by John Williams.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.