Psychic Killer is an oddball that combines two of the the 1970s' signature trends: revenge films and a fascination with the paranormal. It has some brilliant ideas but is poorly executed and falls far short of its potential.
Psychic Killer wastes no time: its first scene is an action scene, and the entire backstory is laid out within the first few minutes. Arnold, played by Jim Hutton, wakes up from a nightmare and nearly powers past the guards of his psychiatric prison. He is there because a doctor who had refused to treat his mother was murdered shortly after Arnold publicly threatened him. Arnold is angry at the legal system who railroaded him and at the medical professionals who allowed his mother to die. Emilio, a fellow inmate, recognizes Arnold's need for justice and makes a cryptic promise of help.
The doctor's killer confesses, and Arnold is released from prison. Emilio's promise is upheld in the form of a strange object that gives Arnold the ability to project his soul from his body. This psychic projection can go anywhere and manipulate objects and thoughts. It enables Arnold to kill his antagonists without ever being physically present. A police detective quickly notices that the victims of several unexplained deaths have a connection to Arnold, but there is no evidence and the police are helpless. Arnold is so confident in this fact that he makes no effort to conceal his involvement and plays the "be careful this doesn't happen to you" card with the investigators.
The killings have an excellent Final Destination quality and, at times, a "Dr. Phibes"-like sense of black humor. Several of Psychic Killer's individual scenes are quite memorable and have been imitated in other films. Arnold returns to his body on the autopsy table after having been diagnosed dead. A woman is scalded to death in her shower. The film overall is not a display of filmmaking prowess and often resembles a 1970s television movie. Its soundtrack is overly dramatic and very distracting. Frantically sweeping camera movements ruin a potentially brilliant scene in which a victim hunts for the source of an unseen voice. A more imaginative director could have made a great film out of this story.
The cast is loaded with underwhelming names familiar from b-movies, television and westerns. Julie Adams plays a sympathetic psychiatrist who is very pretty but sounds about 80 years old. Of course, by now she really is 80-something and is still acting, so you go, Julie. There's a funny confrontation between Neville Brand as a cranky, dishonest butcher and Della Reese as a sassy customer. If the rest of the movie were nearly as modern or funny as that scene, instead of old-fashioned, serious and dull, it would be a gem. Psychic Killer is excellent during its death scenes, which delight in their own mayhem, but too much of the film looks like a 1950s-style b-movie and fails to engage.
The connection to the 1950s is particularly relevant because many of the cast, crew and writers made their mark during that era. There is an awkward fit between the film's contemporary content and its apparent adherance to the Hays Code standard of the unsympathetic villain. It would have been better to cast Arnold as an antihero and go full-out "Dr. Phibes" with this, as that would have allowed the movie to play to the inventive death scenes that are its greatest strength. Those tail off toward the end of the film and leave us with an unexceptional police procedural. We would be better off watching a Streets of San Francisco rerun at that point.
Note: Dr. Taylor is killed while seducing a patient. This is technically not murder, because this is punishable by death per American Psychiatric Association guidelines. Fun facts!