Sunday, April 7, 2024

William Shatner in Lady Killer Mode: William Grefé's Low-Budget 1974 Thriller Impulse

(William Grefé, 1974, USA, 89 minutes)

"It's a revolting exploitation film."--Jean Dietrich, The Courier-Journal

When Matt Stone (Chad Walker) was a boy, he awoke late one night to find his mother entertaining a soldier (Blood Feast's Bill Kerwin). He couldn't figure out what they were doing, but he found it disturbing, and so the minute the man became aggressive, Matt grabbed the nearest sharp implement--his deceased father's samurai sword--and plunged it into his abdomen. It isn't clear if things would have blown over or if the guy really intended to rape his mother. Afterward, Matt puts his pinky in the corner of his mouth in a proto-Dr. Evil gesture meant to convey little-boy confusion. 

William Grefé, a Florida filmmaker known for B-movie schlockers like 1967's Death Curse of Tartu--presents this opening sequence in black and white before switching to color to introduce the fully-grown Matt, now played by William Shatner in excellent form. It's up the audience to decide whether Matt was always a sociopath or whether protectiveness of his mother made him murder out of necessity. Instead of gratitude, though, she expressed deep disappointment afterward, and that appears to have stuck with him. One way or the other: the incident shaped Matt Stone. And not for the good.

As the opening credits dance across the screen, Matt watches a beautiful belly dancer (Paula Dimitrouleas) shimmy in a silver sequined outfit. He cuts a striking figure in his Herb Tarlek-style 1970s threads with a cigarillo in one hand, a cocktail in the other, and a smarmy, lustful look on his face. After her performance, Matt invites the dancer into his convertible while the middle-aged Helen (Marcia Knight) watches from a nearby car, seething. 

After his dalliance, Helen, who has been supporting Matt, confronts him. As they argue, anger escalates on both sides, leading Matt to bark, "Big, tough broad, aren't you?," at which point he strangles her to death, leaving Helen leaning against the car door, tongue lolling to the side of her mouth, a Grefé signature as much as the random shot of a (fully-clothed) lady's ass. 

Instead of a sense of relief, Matt seems shocked by his own strength. For all his fear and rage, he isn't a complete monster, and he had only meant to shut her up--not to kill her. Nonetheless, his animalistic cry of anguish afterward could be read as regret over the loss of his meal ticket as much as that of a fellow human being. It's also possible he's simply scared of getting caught by the police, so he thinks fast, puts the key in the ignition, turns it, and pushes the car into the lake, where it sinks beneath the water. 

Matt may be free, but he has apparently been sponging off of rich widows for years, using his charm and good looks to reel them in. Shatner was 43 at the time, just young enough to play this sort of character, but the clock is ticking on Matt's slimy lifestyle, and he doesn't appear to have any other skills. Grefé only doles out as much information as necessary, and not a jot more, so it isn't clear if Matt ever even received a proper education.

If he has a car, and the cash he swiped from the Helen's wallet, Matt lacks any visible means of support. His victim also left him with a scratch across his face, but it will heal in a convenient instant. In short order, he composes himself, packs up his belongings, and heads to Tampa to find a new benefactor. Grefé then introduces single mother Ann (Jennifer Bishop, terrific) and her bratty 12-year-old daughter, Tina (Kim Nicholas, irritating, yet effective). 

Matt meets Tina first, completely by accident. As he's driving, he spots the small blonde, who has ditched school, hitchhiking in order to visit her father's grave. I was afraid, at this point, that Matt might also revealed as a child molester, but once again--as terrible as he may be--he has his limits. If anything, he seems to think he's doing a good deed, and in a manner of speaking, he is, since someone even worse could have picked her up. 

Though Tina is grateful for the ride, Matt shocks her when a dog darts into the road, he accidentally drives over it, realizes what he's done, and plunges on ahead. Tina knows in an instant that something is not quite right with this guy. Later that afternoon, Matt just happens to visit the notions store her mother owns and operates while she's positioned on a ladder, arranging a display. Just as Ann (Jennifer Bishop from Grefé's Mako: The Jaws of Death) slips and starts to fall backward, she lands in Matt's sturdy arms, and a spark is ignited. To Grefé's credit, this isn't as hokey as it sounds.

At first, these are just chance encounters. Matt books a motel room, and immediately tumbles into bed with the pretty, flirtatious hotel clerk (Marcy Lafferty, Shatner's lady love and future wife). He isn't looking for anything more than a good time, and he gets it. In his commentary track, Grefé says that Shatner insisted he cast Lafferty. That sort of thing can be problematic when an actor's squeeze lacks skill, but she's a lively, sparky presence. 

The scenario shifts into overdrive when Matt meets Julia (The Baby's Ruth Roman in a fine and feisty turn), Ann's outspoken, maternal friend. The two widows pal around with Clarence (Flying Leathernecks' James Dobson), a gay-coded character who is never explicitly identified as such, though it's clear he harbors no romantic or sexual intentions towards the women. 

Julia invites Matt to join them for dinner at her mansion--which comes complete with fish tanks and suits of armor--in hopes of matching him up with her lonely friend. Matt has also convinced her he's a financial adviser who can boost her stock earnings. He passes himself off to Ann in a similar manner, though he's also attracted to the more age-appropriate option.

If Matt charms the adults, Tina remains convinced he's up to no good, so she sets out to find proof beyond the dog incident, which her mother brushes off as a made-up story. After all, the girl would rather not see her mother date anyone ever again, and not just scheming sleaze-mongers like Matt. 

In his commentary, Grefé notes that Matt was a lady killer in Tony Crechales' original script, titled Want a Ride, Little Girl?, but he wasn't a con man. He also explains that Tina was intended to be sympathetic, but whether due to Nicholas's inexperience or his hurried direction, the Miami native comes across as a brat. As Matt puts it, she's a "mean, jealous, vicious little girl." He's not wrong, but she's also clever, perceptive--and correct. 

The dinner party is such a success that Matt asks Ann out on a date. Everything seems to be going swimmingly as they stroll through the park on a Sunday afternoon until a woman carrying balloons bumps into Matt just as he is about to head up the escalator. With Ann out of earshot, Matt hisses, "You fat--people like you should be ground up and made into dog food!" 

After he catches up with his date, she asks, "What was that about?" He says it wasn't anything, and they go on their way...all the while watched by a muscular, Japanese-American mystery man named Karate Pete (former weightlifter, professional wrestler, and cult actor Harold "Oddjob" Sakata). 

Tina also watches the pair whenever she can sneak away from the house. When she sees her mother enter Matt's motel room, she becomes more dedicated than ever to exposing his rot. Once Ann has left, Matt heads out to meet up with his former cellmate. Though he tries to reason with the thug, Pete threatens to expose him if he doesn't give him a cut of the action. Matt makes some vague promises, as is his wont, and takes his leave. 

Meanwhile, Tina escalates her brave, if foolhardy campaign by entering Matt's unlocked car to hide in the backseat and follow him to his next meeting with Pete. After exchanging words and  fisticuffs, Matt manages to get the drop on the guy and strings him up by a rope in an attempt to strangle him. In real life, this stuntman-free stunt didn't go as planned; Shatner broke his finger and Sakata nearly met his maker.

When Pete manages to free a hand, he pulls out a knife and cuts the rope, leading to an inspired chase through a car wash. Pete may be strong, but he's only so fast, and Matt runs him over with his car. It's the end of Pete and the end of Matt's financial obligation--and Tina saw the whole thing. 

She makes herself Matt's next target when he later spots her exiting his car. He chases, but doesn't catch up to to her. Ann then invites Tina to join her and Matt on their second date, leading to surreptitious looks between the two whenever Ann's gaze drifts elsewhere. The minute Tina gets her mother alone, she tries to detail the horrors she witnessed the night before, but once again, the besotted Ann brushes off her increasingly tall tales. 

All the while, Matt's past haunts him, and Grefé frequently cuts away to the incident with the soldier in addition to encounters with the previous women with whom Matt has tangled. Not only is his situation growing more desperate, his mind is growing progressively muddled, so he sets out to do all he can to get Julia and Ann to willingly hand over their money, and then abscond with the spoils as quickly as humanly possible. 

This leads to threats, arguments, breaking and entering, physical altercations, a chase through a graveyard and a funeral home, and some rather bloody kills--even a fish tank doubles as a weapon. It would be a crime to say more, but Grefé wraps the film up in satisfying style. 

Though there's some psychological complexity to the premise, I don't mean to make Impulse sound more sophisticated than it is. It's a low-budget production that was shot in 15 days and designed for the grindhouse circuit where it thrived despite, and maybe even because of, some pretty damning reviews. If anything, it's only through a stroke of luck that it turned out as good as it did, because it might have faded from view without Shatner's participation. Not least because he doesn't phone it in, though Atlanta Journal critic Barbara Thomas, among others, felt otherwise when she wrote, "William Shatner is the poorest excuse for a deranged killer we've seen in many a day." (Suffice to say, female critics did not dig this film.)

As Grefé explains in his commentary, he and the producer were heading out to Hollywood to cast the film when they ran into the actor in the Miami airport. They buttonholed Shatner to explain the project, and amazingly, he said yes. Right there on the spot. As Grefé adds, Shatner received no points on the original Star Trek, so he wasn't exactly riding high in the early-1970s, and though he has a reputation for his sizeable ego, he and Grefé got along so well that they would work together again on a series of Bacardi minimovies. Sadly, Shatner has since dismissed the film as the result of cash-strapped decision-making, even as it has only grown in estimation over the years. 

If Impulse would still probably work without him, bolstered by solid performances from Jennifer Bishop and Ruth Roman--who appeared in Hitchcock's 1951 masterpiece Strangers on a Train--Shatner makes the film the cult hit it would become, to the extent that it's now available as part of a two-disc set bursting with over 15 hours of extras, including short films, featurettes, commercials, a postcard-sized portrait of Matt Stone suitable for framing, and earlier Grefé features, like black and white 1966 docudrama The Devil's Sisters and the seriously unfunny, money-losing 1973 comedy The Godmothers with Mickey Rooney and Billy Barty. 

Grefé even provides a commentary track for the former, a roughie about sex trafficking in Mexico that isn't always easy to watch, and nor should it be, but the real story is more horrifying than anything the director depicted.

Like many people who grew up with Star Trek, Shatner became an icon in my world, and I've continued to follow some, but not all, of his big- and small-screen projects, especially the great Columbo guest appearances, and all five seasons of Boston Legal, which David E. Kelley spun-off The Practice on the strength of Shatner's scene-stealing turns as entertainingly fatuous attorney Denny Crane. 

Though I took a pass on cop show T.J. Hooker and short-lived sitcom $#*! My Dad Says, Shatner made Boston Legal destination TV, especially in his scenes opposite James Spader's Alan Shore--a character also introduced on The Practice--in which the unlikely duo regularly upped each other's game. 

In the case of Impulse, there's another performance-enhancing detail worth mentioning, and that's the costuming. Grefé worked out a deal with a local haberdashery to supply all of Shatner's outfits as Matt Stone, and they contribute to the appeal of both character and film. Most every shirt has the loudest print imaginable, everything is made from slick polyester, and bizarro accessories, like a big white pimp hat, add to the skeevy effect. 

In the years to come, Shatner would become a certified award-winner with a fistful of Emmy statuettes, but he's always been a contentious figure when it comes to his talent. Is he a bad actor who is enjoyable to watch simply because of a unique alchemy of charisma and vibes or is he a good, but highly idiosyncratic actor whose staccato vocal inflections and feral gestures indicate genuine dramatic skill? I believe both things can be true. He's irresistible for comedians to impersonate, and yet there's no one else like him, and he's riveting in Impulse from start to finish. It isn't necessarily an Academy Award-caliber performance, but for what it is: it's perfect

The 4K restoration of Impulse, constructed from an archival 35mm release print, is out now in a two-Blu-ray set from Grindhouse Releasing. Images from GR (William Shatner and Chad Walker), (Kim Nicholas), The Bloody Pit of Horror (Shatner with Jennifer Bishop and Ruth Roman), House of Self Indulgence (Shatner and Nicholas), Indiewire (Star Trek-era Shatner with tribbles), and the IMDb (Sharon Saxon in The Devil's Sisters). 

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