The late 1980s to the early 1990s was a good time for Lou Diamond Phillips. La Bamba (1987) was his breakout movie with an inspired performance as legendary rock ‘n’ roller Richie Vallens. He capitalized on this newfound fame by delivering a gritty performance in Stand and Deliver (1988), but his most commercially successfully period was Young Guns (1988) and its sequel (1990). He parlayed the clout garnered from these movies to star in The First Power (1990), a B-movie fusion of supernatural horror and neo-noir that was critically mauled, but a hit at the box office, more than doubling its budget. Written and directed by Robert Resnikoff, the movie looks like an average ‘80s cop picture with a typically intense performance by Phillips and a charismatically creepy turn by Jeff Kober playing the antagonist.
A nun (Elizabeth Arlen) warns her superiors about the rise of cult killings in the United States as a sign that Satan is getting more powerful. They dismiss her claims and send her back to the convent from whence she came. As it so happens, there is a serial killer known as the Pentagram Killer (Jeff Kober) on the loose in Los Angeles who carves a, you guessed it, pentagram into the bodies of his victims.
Russell Logan (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the police detective determined to catch this nutbag, but has been unable to figure out the killer’s next target until he gets a phone call from a mysterious woman claiming that she knows. Resnikoff films the caller in noirish shadows so that her identity is obscured. One night, Logan and his partner Oliver Franklin (Mykelti Williamson) are patrolling streets three nights into their stakeout and their brief exchange not only conveys the camaraderie between the two men, but that Logan is skeptical of the supernatural angle to these killings while his partner is a believer.
Of course, his superiors don’t buy Logan’s theory or his anonymous source, but they’re soon eating their words when one of the undercover cops (Sue Giosa) is nabbed by the killer. Fortunately, Logan and Franklin arrive just in time with the former pursuing the killer through backstreets and ending with a showdown in a warehouse. Logan manages to prevail but is stabbed multiple times in the process.
The sicko is identified as Patrick Channing who is described by friends and co-workers as, big surprise, a quiet, mild-mannered guy that was good at his job. At Channing’s trial, he is all smiles as if he knows something everyone else doesn’t. He confronts Logan on the steps of the courthouse and after joking around cryptically tells the cop that he “owes him one.” Channing looks Logan creepily in the eyes and says, “See ya around, buddy boy.”
Sure enough, Channing gets the death penalty, which prompts Logan’s anonymous source to call again and warn him to stop the execution. He’s killed, but Logan has a nightmare that the killer escapes from the gas chamber as well as seeing things that aren’t there when he’s awake. To make matters worse, the undercover cop that Logan saved is killed in Channing’s preferred style of choice. This provokes Logan’s anonymous tipster to finally surface – Tess Seaton (Tracy Griffith), a beautiful professional psychic that claims Channing’s spirit has been set free and this has enabled him to start killing again.
Naturally, Logan doesn’t believe her, but when some random junkie is brought in and identified as the killer of the undercover cop, something doesn’t seem right and he hears Channing’s voice when he confronts the catatonic derelict. All of these coincidences, plus even more weird occurrences, spook Logan enough so that he decides to team up with Tess to track down and stop Channing once and for all.
Lou Diamond Phillips dresses like a typical maverick cop complete with cowboy boots, jeans and a trenchcoat while spouting lines like, “I can do anything I want!” but the actor wisely tones down these clichés when Logan is taken out of his comfort zone as he transforms from cynic to cautious believer. As the movie progresses, Phillips does a nice job of showing how his character’s confidence is shaken after witnessing several bizarre things he can’t explain. The actor adopts a haunted look as Logan begins to doubt his sanity. To prepare for the role, Phillips rode around with Detective Bob Grogan, the primary investigator in the Hillside Strangling cases, in an unmarked police car and observed him at work.
Tracy Griffith is good as a professional psychic driven to stop Channing when she starts seeing him after his death. She’s a proactive character and a good foil for Logan. Tess doesn’t come across as some kind of New Age flake, but a grounded person who speaks matter-of-factly about the spirit world. At times, Tess brings down Logan’s defenses and the two actors play well off each other in these scenes and in others as he is the jaded cop and she is the true believer.
Known mostly for playing dastardly villains throughout his career, Jeff Kober gets to sink his teeth into a juicy role he clearly relishes playing judging from the shit-eating grin he gives throughout the movie. It’s a larger than life role that all allows the actor to play broadly and have fun with it.
The First Power received mostly negative reviews from critics. USA Today gave the film one out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “This is the kind of film that feels compelled to explain its title long after you care; that has its hero carry bigger and bigger guns, even when they’ll do no good against a supernatural villain.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “Power is so shopworn and imitative, you don’t need Lou’s psychic buddy to tell what is about to happen.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The action is fairly consistent and some of the special effects are good, but the whole thing is seriously stupid.”
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “For all its purposed concern for spirituality, The First Power is a hollow, bone-crunching, blood-splattered business.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The movie is really just a squalid cop thriller with occult clichés.” However, the Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Robert Resnikoff’s lively first film is basically a shock-studded chase sequence, enlivened by dialogue that is occasionally quite funny.”
The first third of The First Power follows typical cop thriller conventions, but as Resnikoff gradually introduces supernatural elements and they begin to dominate the movie becomes more interesting. This results in some impressively staged action sequences, like when halfway through Logan corners Channing on a rooftop only for the killer to jump off, plummeting ten stories and land on his feet. It’s an audaciously staged stunt and also helps Logan believe that the supernatural is playing a part in Channing’s actions. There’s another nice bit where Logan and Tess confront Channing in a run-down hotel only for the killer to tear down ceiling fan and use it as a weapon. It isn’t very realistic, but does look cool.
The First Power does suffer a bit from The Terminator (1984) syndrome in that once Channing is resurrected and starts hopping from body to body he becomes a seemingly unstoppable killing machine much like The Hidden (1987) a few years before only it dabbled in science fiction instead of horror. There’s also very little character development and this leaves it up to Phillips and Griffith to use their charisma to get us to care about what happens to Logan and Tess, which they just manage to do. Resnikoff has created an efficient thriller trimmed of any narrative fat with a deliberately ambiguous ending that feels a bit like a cheat. While it won’t win any awards for originality, The First Power is an entertaining thriller and a supernatural noir that anticipates the likes of Lord of Illusions (1997) and The Ninth Gate (1999).
Smith, Harry. “Lou Diamond Phillips, Actor on The First Power.” CBS This Morning. April 4, 1990.