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Impulse – film review

December 5, 2019


An effective slow-burn psychological thriller.

Reviewed on Sunday 1st December 2019

Directed by Graham Baker. Written by Nicholas Kazan (as Bart Davis) and Don Carlos Dunaway. Starring: Tim Matheson, Meg Tilly, Hume Cronyn and Bill Paxton. Year of release: 1984. Running time: 91 mins.

Some weeks ago, I was watching ‘Grumpy Andrew’s Horror House’ channel on youtube – a learned, engaging and eloquent reviewer of horror films (well worth checking out) – and in particular his recent retrospective series on the original Omen trilogy. It was while watching his review of Omen III: The Final Conflict (a film I hadn’t seen since its initial release on VHS back in the day) – that I felt compelled to look up that film’s director – Graham Baker on IMDb. It was here, amongst the helmer’s list of credits that I learnt of the existence of his follow-up to The Final Conflict (his feature debut) – the obscure psychological thriller – Impulse. Delving further, I discovered this movie had recently been released on blu-ray and promptly ordered myself a copy. The idea of a small town going crazy (acting on impulse) immediately appealed to me. The added bonus of the late, great Bill Paxton; featured in a supporting role sealed the deal – I just had to see this movie.

Deciding to revisit The Final Conflict for the first time in some thirty-eight years – in preparation for my viewing of Impulse, my immediate take on Graham Baker’s direction (with regards to Omen III) – was that his directing style is somewhat journeyman-like and non-showy – allowing the material to speak for itself. Unfortunately, while Sam Neill is well cast in the role of the grown-up antichrist Damien Thorn, the screenplay for the third Omen film is considerably lacking to say the least – the pacing being mostly ponderous, with very little sense of dread and peppered with some cringingly unintentional goofy moments.

Thankfully, with Impulse – he has much better material to work with.

The film’s basic premise brings to mind an actual, widely-documented historical event. On the 15th of August 1951, the small provincial town of Pont-Saint-Esprit (in the south of France) famously endured a bout of temporary mass insanity – affecting most of the population for a period of forty-eight hours. Experiencing symptoms akin to the effects of LSD (although the culprit was officially declared to be ergot poisoning from a bad batch of locally produced bread) – hundreds of townspeople experienced either unexplained delirium, manic euphoria or terrifying hallucinations – resulting in at least four deaths due to misadventure. While it remains unclear whether or not screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Don Carlos Dunaway used this historical incident as inspiration for Impulse – the parallels are obvious.

The film opens with an effective pre-title sequence in which we see various animals in an un-named rural town reacting to an earthquake before it happens. While the quake itself isn’t big enough to inflict major damage to the town, it does cause an unmarked concrete containment vessel in the woods to crack open. We are then introduced to our main protagonist Jennifer (Meg Tilly) and her surgeon boyfriend Stuart (Tim Matheson). Jennifer is compelled to return to her hometown with Stuart – in order to deal with the fallout of a shocking medical emergency involving her mother (not wishing to spoil the visceral impact of this shocking incident – the less said about the nature of this medical emergency the better). Suffice to say – this is just the first of many visceral punches this movie delivers as the townspeople quickly succumb to impulsive bouts of unbridled hedonism, lust, grotesque self harm and violent aggression. This mass psychosis manifesting as an absence of morality, wherein those affected have a complete lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions. In short, a kind of chemically-induced psychopathy. And the film brazenly goes places one wouldn’t normally expect (as far as subverting and sometimes offing particular characters); giving us the unnerving feeling that anything can happen – successfully creating a palpable sense of escalating unease.

While the first half of Impulse undoubtedly has a similar slow-burn paranoia feel to the original 1950s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – the escalation of societal collapse (as loss of morality takes hold) also recalls the finale of Steve DeJarnett’s masterful 1988 thriller Miracle Mile (wherein downtown LA is gripped by mass hysteria in the face of imminent nuclear attack). And the reveal of the source of the contamination should come as no surprise to those paying attention. However, at no point is the toxin explained – let alone named – only adding to the believability of the premise. Refreshingly, there are no lab-coated scientists conveniently showing up to give us a detailed dump of pertinant information. Indeed, the film is less concerned about this particular mystery – than it is the dust-covered government vehicle seen lurking in the background as the town descends into chaos (the unseen driver of which we do eventually get to meet). But even then – we are left in the dark as to who was ultimately responsible for dumping the toxic waste to begin with.

The writing on Impulse is extremely good. This isn’t television or a stage play – it’s a movie; with the dialog being sparse and stripped down – allowing the actors to do their job; delivering nuanced performances. And the performances for the most part are also very good, with Tim Matheson (Animal House, 1941) demonstrating a range not previously seen (thanks to the unexpected arc of his character) – along with Bill Paxton; here playing Jennifer’s brother with an air of brooding intensity quite unlike his more comedic turns in The Terminator and Streets of Fire that same year. But it is Meg Tilly (Psycho II) who truly shines in one of her best roles ever. Not nearly as appreciated as she should be, Tilly gives a terrific performance and is a joy to watch as the empathic and resourceful Jennifer.

In comparison to Omen III, Baker’s direction on Impulse is a vast improvement – so much so in fact that its virtually impossible to recognize they were helmed by the same person. Just goes to show I guess that a director is ultimately only ever as good as the material they have to work with. Hopefully, now that Impulse has been given a release on blu-ray – more people will have the chance to see it. Highly recommended.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

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