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Second Sight (1991)
Director: Michael J. Murphy

review by Paul Higson

It should be pointed out that on its first video un-spooling, Michael J. Murphy's Second Sight got a light applaud and a three star rating. In the second viewing that extra star was born, gradually, meticulously, going nova on a single line of dialogue in the closing minutes, it budged from good into groovy. Second Sight is possibly Murphy's best film. Postmodern before the coinage in film horror genre terms, the title a potential quadruple entendre, the script opportunely delivered by four of the best actors in his 16mm universe. It ticks over splendidly, never letting up, changing tack repeatedly, almost portmanteau... episodic, and yet ultimately intact, and compact. Compacted like the ground around a well-buried corpse... or the prematurely intered.

Raymond Heller (Patrick Olliver) is a successful horror novelist. You may have read some of his books: 'Carve Her Name In Blood', 'Stinger', 'Primal Dawn', 'Call At Midnight' or perhaps, his bestseller 'The Silent Die Slow'. His latest work in composition concerns a scalp happy lunatic medico Dr Charles Purcell (Neil Goulbourn), the horror passages of the work in progress presented on the screen for us. Heller has a habit of using the visages of those around him, his book psycho sporting the face of a visiting maintenance man, the manuscript's next victim to resemble Madeline (Caroline McDowell), a pushy rep from his literary agency trying to persuade him to sell the film rights to his novels. The eccentric author prefers his vision to remain unspoiled on the page... at least until his death. One of the few faces he refuses to transplant into his fictional world is that of his young American wife, Victoria (Amy Raasch): "You're too close to me to be anything but your delicious self. You are of the flesh, not the imaginary pages of a book." And she might be the only one too close to him.

Heller has purchased a mansion away from it all and Victoria is having difficulties handling the seclusion. The only other person living on the grounds is the handsome young estates manager, Nick (James Raynard), who has secured the position because of his own literary aspirations and to study and hopefully discover something of the master's successful processes at close quarters. As she confides, "Unlike Ray and you I am not a writer. I can't escape into some imaginary world." Nick responds. "Well I learned something from Ray about writing... not to neglect the people we love for the people we invent."

Directors are often drawn towards the 'film' film and this is an example of the writer in that director drawn to that impulse and exploring 'writing' in the filmic medium. Unlike others who get it out of their system early in a film career Murphy is by this stage a practised plotter and storyteller. Heller, the character, is an author denying a filmed interpretation, but long before an end result, Murphy, the director and author, has the author's imagination represented in film. In a dinner table scene the guest, Sean (David Charles), an American 'ex' of the wife's catching a whiff of the money that could be coming his way with the right villainous swerve, uses the writers craft to spin a murder yarn in the given company, perhaps to try and milk the author of his own future fate, who better to supply him with the premise of the perfect homicide. The result is to an extent naïve, but if Heller's contribution seems a little short shrift and unimaginative perhaps it is because he is wary of his company and storing it up for a rainy day, either literary or in mind to real circumstances.

Sean is the idiot schemer, the studio that means to steal the murderous imagination of the creative and botch it up large. Victoria is set to become the victim of circumstance. Sean is more than an 'ex', but it is not to be the expected plot. That one has been played in film before and in Michael J. Murphy's films before. Sean and his plot are cut short. The exclusive he has over her, if she does not cooperate, is that this woman is a bigamist, her previous marriage to him having never been annulled. Cleverly, the first hint of how truly organic this script is comes in here. Sean is no genius, and the threat of media involvement is chucked back in his face. Victoria responds that a headline would only mean divorce and adverse publicity, of which there can never be enough for celebrity. He soon meets a sticky end.

Thirty minutes into the film and that quadruple entendre of the film's title has yet to be put into play. Acting as an advisor to Heller is the occult specialist and author of 'Psychic Powers', Tanith Pike (Judith Holding); the name doesn't require any explanation to regular British horror novel readers of the period. Tanith is clairvoyant, has 'second sight'. When the film was released in Spain it went under the title Premonicion losing the other meanings on the title. Thirty minutes in and Heller is yet to be rendered temporarily blind in a drunken incident. When his sight returns it will be literally a second chance at vision. It comes with another observation, an awakening to the affair his wife has begun with Nick.
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There is also an early suggestion by way of directorial technique that the author may have clairvoyant or telepathic ability also, that the crimes in the novel in the writing may be occurring somewhere in the actual environment, this despite their ludicrous edge. It is a suggestion that is heightened when the agency representative is inserted into the novel. We have seen the maintenance man on the day and we see Madeline drive away. The victim 'Madeline' is abducted wearing the same clothes and while driving the same car... and she is never again seen in Second Sight. So might the crimes be in perpetration in Heller's real world too? This idea is given way to for the 'fictional' doctor to clearly pop in on Heller's home-life as the evil id of the author in the vengeful latter stages of the story. This is ridden of but never fully negated. Even Victoria appears to have a bolt or two of premonition, no mind-shot is wasted.

The final stage of the story is the revenge, a play on the packing case burial in the grounds that has already taken place, the wife's claustrophobia, and yet more burial of packing cases. The remaining players are in turn to suffer trauma and a death. It is a supremely setup sequence of events, during which the line that edged me over to the fuller appreciation arose, unnoticed the first run through. Heller addresses Nick when dismissing him from his employment, suggesting the young man calculate his options given the circumstances, describing him "an intelligent and cultured man." This had actually been Victoria's definition of the word 'sophisticated' seized upon by the pedantic writer husband earlier in the film, forcing her to give the correct dictionary definition: "to corrupt, to mislead, to spoil the naturalness or innocence of, not genuine." This is how it truly defines the young rival. Heller has been twice seen to seize upon the minor etymological crimes of the spouse, on a second occasion correcting her on her use of 'tasteless', informing her, "You mean distasteful."

Murphy has fun, referencing earlier plot devices. The dinner discussion turns to a demand of Victoria for a murder plot. "With a car crash. Cut the brake things. Whatever they do to the car in films... And it's always driven along a mountain road. The brakes fail and it plunges into a ravine and bursts into flames destroying the evidence." This is clearly a knock to himself and earlier Murphy films like Death In The Family, where it indeed played an important part of the plot.

The film benefits hugely by starring four of Murphy's best actors and not suffering any of the more amateurish. Elsewhere in the cast are those actors who may have been unconvincing in the wrong roles, here found the character parts they can't betray. Back to the stars though and centrally we have Patrick Olliver and his terrific voice, a cadent and resonant twin to that great actor John Paul (Doomwatch), he is perfect for the role of Heller. He is convincingly when sly and angry and does very well in the blind stint. Amy Raasch brings that laidback south-coast acting style to the film, her only appearance before the camera on a Murphy film though she was later to act as a casting director on his Road To Nowhere. She is continuing a long career as a successful circuit singer and songwriter. Neil Goulbourn is as terrific as ever, a deliciously bad fantasy villain, theatrical as the role demands but with an underlying scary believability. Then there is Reynard, shortly to take a psychotic turn in Road To Nowhere, here an ordinary and amiable fellow continually dragged into uncomfortable circumstances by all the other players. They are the quartet that had the skills to improve other films for Murphy, but this is their only film together.

The film runs 85 minutes and not one of them is wasted. Erroneously it is credited at one point on the film as a Merlin Film Productions.
Second Sight

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