ESP films range from creepy to cheesy

In the Star Wars movies, the Force is supposed to be some kind of all-encompassing universal mojo, but on the ground it translates to kick-ass parlor tricks like levitating X-wing fighters and dislodging light-sabers from snow banks, you know, with your mind. Psychic powers are everywhere in the movies; with such a broad conceit, it’s hard to compile an authoritative list, so what I did is mix a few favorites with a couple of titles I could happily have avoided forever if it weren’t for this assignment. Can you guess which ones are which? Oooh, you must be psychic!

The Dead Zone (1983)
You don’t realize it until you start sorting them into piles, but the best movie adaptations of Stephen King books tend to be the “psychic” ones: Carrie, The Shining and—in my opinion the one most overdue for rediscovery—The Dead Zone. Not, repeat, not the lousy King-produced remake, but the David Cronenberg original with Christopher Walken at his creepy best. Walken stars as John Smith, a schoolteacher who falls into a five-year coma after a car accident and emerges with a frightening gift for predicting people’s futures (including presidential candidate Martin Sheen’s) by touching their hands. Awesomely bleak and depressing.

Scanners (1981)
Another great Cronenberg entry. Two scientists battle for control of “scanner” Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), one of 237 people in the world with special mind powers capable of shattering heads from across the room. The other 236 scanners are already in league with the nefarious Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) in an underground world domination network that Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) must destroy using the one scanner who has managed to go undetected so far. Features the most notorious gore scene in the Cronenberg filmography, perhaps in all horror movies.

Powder (1995)
This well-meaning but mawkish movie stars Sean Patrick Flanery as a boy with special mental abilities and no skin pigment, born of lightning and hidden away in his dead grandparents’ cellar until a social worker retrieves him and tries to integrate him into the world. Powder is slow going, mostly an alternating series of hostile encounters and magic displays iced with a little puppy love, and it hammers away on its message of tolerance until enough is enough already. Flanery is okay, but his character’s suite of powers is a bit too rich: electromagnetism, telekinesis, levitation, faith healing, animal endearing, memorizing Moby-Dick. In one memorably weird scene, Powder channels a dying deer’s pain into the body of a redneck hunter. Not exactly trying to make friends, is he?

Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Anthony Hopkins stars as Ted Brautigan, a quiet and mysterious man who rents a room upstairs from 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his widowed mother (Hope Davis) and hires Bobby to read the newspapers to him for a dollar a week. Set in 1960, Hearts falls into the rather smaller subcategory of Stephen King adaptations like Stand By Me that aren’t really horror movies but nostalgic coming-of-age movies with something weird or morbid lurking in the margins. In screen terms, this translates to movies packed with nostalgia and saddled with the mother of all clichéd oldies soundtracks, in this case without a whole lot of movie actually going on. Hopkins seems a little bored at times and the psychic powers he shares with his young neighbor are, if anything, understated.

Empire of the Ants (1977)
Mind-control movies form a subcategory of psychic movies, I guess, and one with lots of familiar titles. There’s Videodrome (Cronenberg again!), The Manchurian Candidate, Donovan’s Brain and a couple versions each of Village of the Damned and 1984. With other humans as the mind-controllers, however, these movies pale in comparison to the vintage weirdness of Empire of the Ants, in which a queen ant takes over a small town and bends its inhabitants to her hive-building will. The ’70s were full of “nature’s revenge” type movies, but none quite as odd as this one.

The Craft (1996)
Why do movie characters with supernatural powers always have such limited horizons? The quartet of teenage hotties in The Craft can levitate things, make people’s hair fall out, balance pencils on their tips and turn into clones of each other. They could put together the hottest teenage Catholic school witch cabaret act in Vegas if they wanted to, but they stick to settling old lunchroom scores. Kids today, eh? No ambition. No respect for a buck.

(The) Psychic

When browsing for psychic movies, a good piece of advice is to avoid any that actually have “psychic” in the titles. Let’s see, there’s the 1992 Psychic starring Zach Galligan as a college student who receives psychic clues about a campus serial killer and shares them with the police—only to be accused of committing the murders himself. The Psychic, from 2004, stars Casper van Dien (Starship Troopers) as a police detective on the run from the FBI after a near-fatal car crash (sigh) gives him clairvoyant powers. The list goes tragically on and on.
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