Psychsploitation and THE PSYCHO LOVER

The 1970 trash classic that does not care for psychological accuracy or taste.

There exists in cinema a subgenre I like to refer to as “psychsploitation”: films that exploit popular, often erroneous notions about psychology or related fields. These films’ premises are often based in only the most casual of research into the subject, and some are based entirely on other movies’ depictions of it. Robert Vincent O’Neill’s 1970 The Psycho Lover (aka The Loving Touch; available as a digital download from Something Weird Video) is one of these films: a wholly stupid depiction of psychology, wrapped up in full-strength ‘70s sleaze.

The Psycho Lover tells the rancid tale of Dr. Kenneth Alden (recurring Star Trek guest Lawrence Montaigne), psychiatrist, hired by police lieutenant Morlock (no relation to the creatures of 802,701 AD) to help investigate a series of murders. It’s worked out pretty early that the killer is young Marco Everson (Frank Cuva), but rather than turn him in, Dr. Alden takes him under his psychological wing, probing into the depths of his psyche and resculpting him as a weapon. For you see, Dr. Alden has a secret of his own: he’s cheating on his alcoholic wife Valerie (a terrific Jo Anne Meredith) with young ingenue Stacy, and in order to fully pursue his affair, he’s going to train Marco to murder Valerie for him.

Yes, while the film purports to be a procedural about a serial rapist and murderer, the real villain is also the protagonist, Dr Alden, who turns killer Marco into his own personal attack dog so that he might keep fucking his young lover unhindered by his nagging wife. There’s something pitiable about Marco, whose latent misogyny (the kind borne of self-hatred, itself borne of loneliness) is exploited by Dr Alden for his own selfish ends. Conflated with brainwashing, the profession of psychology doesn't emerge from this movie with a strong reputation. Even without the brain conditioning, the psychology is stupid: the inside of Marco’s mind is depicted as an endless succession of nude, dancing ladies, lit colourfully and edited with strobe cuts. In hypnotherapy, he speaks of a voice in his head telling him to “kill, kill, KILL!”. It’s about as surface-level and obvious as you could get.

There’s something wonderful about stupid movies that think they’re smart. The Psycho Lover approaches psychology as if it’s just been invented. Its over-explanation of basic psychological concepts isn’t patronising, because it genuinely feels like the filmmakers are genuinely discovering these ideas for the first time. Even the mystery component of the film - one plot point hinges on the mispronunciation of “beacon” as “bacon,” for example - is so phenomenally stupid as to be actually endearing.

The Psycho Lover owes a lot to The Manchurian Candidate. So much so that that movie is, in fact, a plot point in this one: Dr Alden gets explained the story in detail in a desperately on-the-nose scene of foreshadowing, and eventually co-opts the movie’s plot for his own purposes. You get the sense that O’Neill saw The Manchurian Candidate and immediately - without any further research - scribbled out the story to this movie. And to be frank, who needs research when you’ve got an idea as lurid as this one?

Needless to say, this is an exceptionally misogynistic film - coming from the writer of 1982’s Vice Squad, that’s hardly surprising. But it’s hard to be disturbed by the misogyny of films like this. It’s not even subtext: characters openly talk about hating women, and it feels like the film agrees with them, but it’s so overt and over-the-top that today, it plays as unintentional comedy. It’s like a historical document about misogynists of the past. I originally saw this film back-to-back with The Love Butcher, another really fun film of the same ilk, and together they gave birth to my love of this kind of exploitation cinema. I’m fascinated by films that openly espouse horrid worldviews - watching them turns into an exercise in deciphering the twisted psychology that created them.

And indeed, The Psycho Lover is a truly bizarre film in almost every way: its despicable ideology, its psychedelic formalistics, its obsession with weird cars and sledding. There’s a new unique dramatic oddity every few minutes, presented with absolute seriousness by a po-faced cast. The Psycho Lover clings to a metronome swinging between brutality and silliness. You get tonal whiplash from the way the film leaps and gambols between saccharine romance, sardonic domestic banter, police procedural, and violent sexploitation. The scenes of Marco attacking his victims are intensely mean, if clumsily executed, lit in garish colours and performed with frightening ferocity. Some of the story’s implications are horrifying. But on the other hand, Dr. Alden’s illicit romance with Stacy is shot and edited like the cheesiest of romantic music videos. Director O’Neill jams these scenes up against one another with reckless abandon, and the results are entertaining in the extreme.

I’ve seen The Psycho Lover multiple times, including twice in a cinema. It’s by no means one of the best movies, or even one of the best exploitation movies. But it was a formative film for me: one of the first proper trash films I ever saw, and one that shows how cinema can demonstrate the psychology not just of its characters, but its filmmakers. It’s one of a slew of films from its era that pushed bad ideas about women, men, and people in general - exploiting public interest in the burgeoning field of psychology in order to tell its nasty little story, with little care for tonal cohesion, factual accuracy, or taste. And for that, I love it to pieces.