Impulse (1974) (part 1 of 7)
Back in 1974, way before all those Priceline.com ads, before the recurring role on 3rd Rock from the Sun, before Rescue 911, T.J. Hooker, and all the Star Trek movies, it’s fair to say that William Shatner’s acting career was boldly going nowhere.
The years after the original cancellation of Star Trek saw the former Captain Kirk (by his own admission) taking every single acting job that was offered to him. This certainly explains appearances in movies like Horror at 37,000 Feet, Big Bad Mama, and The Devil’s Rain. (To be fair, other Trek alumni weren’t doing much better. See Night of the Lepus. Or better yet, don’t.) Given this career slump, it’s not terribly surprising that Shatner would end up in Florida doing a trashy flick for a former director of drive-in exploitation fare.
The amount of low budget trash filmed in Florida in the 60’s and 70’s truly boggles the mind. Among the enormous pantheon of Z-grade drive-in directors working out of Florida was William Grefé, whose most notable films of the era were Death Curse of Tartu, Sting of Death, and The Wild Rebels. By 1974, however, he was about to take one of his final stabs at the exploitation genre.
It’s unclear exactly how Grefé came to cast William Shatner in a movie, but one thing is certain: Impulse, the end result of their collaboration, is a hilariously awful mix of kitsch and sleaze that no self-respecting bad movie fan should go without seeing.
When the movie opens, it’s 1945, so everything’s in black and white. (Because, as we all know, there was no such thing as color film back then.) We know it’s 1945 because a radio report subtly informs us that “occupation troops have begun landing in Japan!” We pan across a fireplace and see a samurai sword [?] on the mantle, just as a man with heavily tattooed forearms lifts the weapon and unsheathes it.
As he sweeps the blade across the frame, the Florida drive-in exploitation taint is officially confirmed as we recognize this to be William Kerwin, the star of Herschell Gordon Lewis gore-fests like Two Thousand Maniacs! and Blood Feast. Kerwin here is playing a character I’ll call Sarge, because he’s wearing a jacket with sargeant’s stripes on the sleeve.
Behind Sarge, there’s a middle-aged woman in a black nightgown sleeping on the couch, but she awakes when Sarge starts shouting like a samurai about to commit hari-kari. Slurring her words like crazy, the woman tells him to stop “playing soldier” and to come over and start playing something else. Sarge puts down the sword, gulps down his drink, and belches. (I wonder if he’s supposed to be drunk.)
He climbs on top of the woman as she laughingly jokes that this is “the first time I’ve done this!” Sarge looks at her quizzically, then rears up and lets out a big throaty laugh. I guess this is the sort of joke that’s really funny if you’re drunk. Also, being an idiot doesn’t seem to hurt, either.
We immediately cut to a nearby bedroom and see a freckle-faced boy who’s a dead ringer for Opie Taylor. He’s in bed sleeping, but he begins to stir when he hears Sarge’s boisterous laughter. Back out on the couch, the couple start drunkenly making out in the loudest way possible. Sarge decides to start a fire in the fireplace, but the woman calls him “nuts” for doing this because it’s summertime. “I’ll show you!” he says. No, that’s okay, I don’t need any proof that you’re nuts.
The fireplace roars to life and Sarge proudly calls this “a fire to make love to.” Then he claps his hands together and says, “Why don’t we get going?” Quite the charmer, isn’t he? Luckily for him, the woman he’s with is a real trailer park slut, because this comment only makes her all the more eager to get it on.
Just then, the young boy wanders out into the living room, and his dubbed-in voice shouts, “Leave my mother alone!” Mom pushes Sarge off and asks the kid why he’s not in bed, letting the audience know that this is her son Matt (who will eventually grow up to be William Shatner). Sarge points to Matt and slurs, “That yours?” Then he drags the kid over, climbs back on top of Mom, and laughingly tells him, “Come on, I’ll show ya how it’s done!” Eee-yuck. (At this point I was hoping Matt’s presumed-MIA father would return home from the war so they could all re-enact that “1921” number from Tommy.)
Mom smacks Sarge, but he just laughs it off and shoves Matt to the floor. Sarge then starts roughing up Mom, which stresses out Matt, leading to our first glimpse of his signature move: He starts sucking on his pinky finger [!!] like Dr. Evil, all the while getting a look of very obvious distress on his face. Matt runs over to the fireplace and grabs the conveniently established samurai sword so he can stab Sarge in the hip. Or something. Anyway, it’s enough to draw Sarge’s attention away from Mom.
Sarge gets up and starts staring down the point of the blade at Matt. He threatens Matt that he’ll “whack ya good!” which is not something I would say to someone pointing a sword at me. Sure enough, Matt runs Sarge through with the blade, causing Sarge to gasp, “Ya crazy kid!” before collapsing to the ground and instantly dying.
I hope that, with the way I’ve described things, I haven’t given the impression this event is exciting in some way. Because it isn’t. In fact, the whole sequence is shot with the camera positioned behind the flames in the fireplace, which I guess is supposed to be artistic. And by “artistic”, I mean it artistically covers up how poor the stabbing effect is.
Mom calmly looks down at Sarge’s body, and then there’s a close-up of Matt’s face with a big dew drop of a fake tear rolling down his cheek. His mother says, “Oh my God, Matt, what have you done?” while sounding more like she’s scolding him for putting an empty milk carton back in the fridge. In response, Matt gets a faraway look and just starts sucking on his pinky again. Mom must find pinky-sucking to be utterly terrifying, because she lets out a blood-curdling scream as we cut to the opening credits.
We see the title of the movie spelled out in big blocky letters similar to those used to render the logo for The Flintstones. Two pairs of little knives appear on either side of the title, which I guess are supposed to act as quotation marks [!]. The title then cracks on one side and starts to split apart. I guess this is so nobody misses how much this movie is supposed to be ripping off Psycho.
We cut to Matt as an adult, sitting in a restaurant and smirking Shatner-like into the camera as he smokes a tiny cigar in a Shatner-esque way. The movie is in full color now, allowing us to fully appreciate the parade of hideous 70’s fashions that William Shatner will be displaying throughout the movie. In this scene, he’s got on a blue corduroy jacket worn over a white shirt with huge high collars. (It’s almost like he saw his friend DeForest Kelley in the aforementioned Night of the Lepus and said to himself, “Hey! I can wear tackier clothes than that!”)
Vaguely Persian music fills my ears as we pan over to the object of Matt’s lustful gaze, a belly dancer performing her act. The opening credits continue, and it’s not helping matters that the light orange titles are superimposed over the belly dancer’s skin, thus rendering them nearly unreadable. (Unfortunately for those involved in this film, it doesn’t make them totally unreadable.)
In case there’s any doubt that we’re in for a sleaze-fest, we now get gratuitous close-ups of the belly dancer’s jewel-encrusted navel as she gyrates her hips and shoves her bosom into the camera. She comes up to Matt and shakes her groove thing right in his face. Then she gets down on her knees, wraps her long scarf around his neck, and does a little boobie shake for him. Matt just squints and keeps smoking.
Eventually, he uses the scarf to pull her closer and whisper something in her ear. The two of them then engage in what can only be described as one step up from a lap dance, while everyone else in this otherwise wholesome-looking restaurant just looks on with big approving grins.
Finally, the belly dancer moves away, spinning around a few times under the disco lights and walking offstage. Everyone bursts into applause, and hilariously, the applause we hear is obviously from a group of people about ten times larger than what we see here.
We cut to the belly dancer getting off work. She hops into her convertible and there waiting in the passenger seat is Matt. Since she doesn’t immediately go for her can of mace, we can only assume she was expecting him. This is confirmed when the two share a passionate kiss while she fondles his big collar.
Nearby, a middle-aged blonde woman is sitting in her car and looking upon Matt and the belly dancer with equal parts disgust and disapproval. As the two of them drive off, the older woman just sits there, stewing in her own juices.
The next day, we see Matt and the middle-aged woman (whose name is Helen) walk out of what I think is supposed to be her house, but really looks like a castle [!]. Helen is still fuming, while Matt is trying to convince her he wasn’t with anyone last night. They both get in her car and Matt finally cops to being out with a woman, but pretends she’s just a friend. Helen scoffs at this, memorably noting that “Nobody’s just friends with a belly dancer!” In response, Matt silently starts the car and drives off.
We hear him desperately trying to convince her that nothing happened as they pull up to a small lake in the middle of nowhere. Helen says she’s had enough of his jive, because, apparently, she’s been financially supporting him for months, going so far as to buy all his clothes. (Well, now we know who else to blame.) “Hell,” she says, “I even buy your shaving cream!” Coming this Christmas, it’s William Shatner: Male Gigolo!
Matt reacts to this by switching into full-on James T. Kirk mode, anxiously pressing his knuckle to his lips as she yells at him. Finally, he grows tired of hearing her, resulting in this exchange of dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rat Pack movie:
| Matt: Listen, I’m telling you…
Helen: You are telling me nothing! I’ve got the score now.
Matt: Yeah… You’ve had enough years to know the score, haven’t you?
Helen: Yeah! And a lot better men than you teach me!
Matt: Big – tough – broad, aren’tcha?
Helen: Yeah, tough! And rich too, and the rich part makes me different. Show is ovah, baby!
Matt: I’m not wasting my time on a cheap, over the hill broad…
Just then, Sammy and Dino wandered past, and Dino even flicked a lit cigarette butt at the two of them. I swear this is what really happened.
Anyway, Helen hauls off and smacks Matt, telling him to “Go back to your belly dancer!” and calling her a tramp over and over again. This causes Matt to get a faraway look in his eyes and flash back to the night he stabbed Sarge. (Oddly, Matt remembers the stabbing as if he also saw it through the flames in the fireplace.)
Back in the present, Matt has finally gotten tired of Helen yelling “Tramp!” fifty times in a row and grabs at her throat. She retaliates by scratching his face, which was a bad idea, as this clearly sets his phaser on kill. She tries to escape, but he pulls her head down on his lap and begins strangling her. She practices unsportsmanlike conduct by giving him “the claw”, but Matt rips a page out of the Mike Tyson fight book and starts chewing on her hand [!]. Finally, she goes limp.
Matt composes himself and rests Helen against the passenger side door. He lights up another little cigar, and with a shake of his head and a smile he says, “Oh, Helen… I tell you…” After a second or two, he looks over at her and starts to get concerned because she might be a little bit dead. He calls out her name a few times before finally getting an inkling that if you stop a woman from breathing, she’ll probably die.
Horrified, he jumps out of the car with a Shatner-rific look of agony on his face. He twists around and slams his face and hands against the roof of the car, making a noise somewhat similar to sobbing. Eventually, he turns around and gets an evil idea. A thundering ominous chord and a zoom-in on the lake illustrate this idea with the subtlety we’ve come to expect from this movie.
Matt looks around to see if he’s being watched, then pulls Helen’s body over into the driver’s seat. He turns the ignition, slides the car into gear, and lets it roll forward into the lake. Hmm, I wonder if this is what happened to Nerine. (Yeah, yeah, it’s a cheap shot. But don’t act like you weren’t thinking the same thing.)
After water begins to fill the car, we cut to Matt as he starts sucking on his pinky. And trust me, it looks even goofier than when the kid did it. The director then notices he hasn’t put anything sleazy on the screen in a whole two minutes, so we’re treated to several lengthy close-ups of Helen’s corpse floating inside the car.
Matt heads back to his motel room (being a con man and all, he pretty much lives there). He stares himself down in the mirror until he has a dizzy spell and stumbles backwards. He then starts belching and heaving like he’s about to puke, and I have a hard time not sympathizing with him. He chokes it down, however, then grabs his suitcase and marches out, apparently on his way to getting the heck out of Dodge.