Once in a very great while a movie comes along that seamlessly combines top drawer acting and mind-boggling special effects while exposing a shameful military cover-up. 1984’s THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT is not such a film; however it does have one card up its sleeve that trumps its inherent mediocrity and her name, my friends, is NANCY ALLEN!
Okay, NANCY naysayers, hear me out. During the tumultuous weather patterns that crippled the Eastern Seaboard last month, I found myself with plenty of sofa time and a desire to watch DePALMA’s BLOW OUT. Enter the ALLEN on her one-trick hooker pony and I really thought she stunk up the joint. UNK strongly disagreed and requested that I at least watch DRESSED TO KILL before I threw NANCY out once and for all with the married-to-the-director bathwater. UNK, I gotta say, really knows best! As the working gal with the heart of gold who, with the help of a plucky teen shutterbug, turns the tables on a straight-razor wielding transvestite therapist, ALLEN secured my undying admiration and sent me on a quest to explore her full body of work.
In short, THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT is loosely based on the conspiracy theory surrounding battleship invisibility testing that allegedly took place at the tail end of World War II in the Philly Naval Shipyard. As the story goes, a naval destroyer temporarily disappeared during a top-secret, hush-hush experiment gone awry and when it reappeared, some of the crew members were stuck in the walls and the decks and, in the end, they were all driven insane by the residual effects of time travel and the government covered it up. Or something like that (if you care to go down that rabbit hole, by all means, be my guest and please go HERE.)
Perhaps realizing that a whole film devoted to time traveling seamen would not be of interest to a mainstream audience (I mean, sure that could play in the art houses, but not Middle America); the screenwriters threw in an unrequited love story between one of the time-displaced sailors (brooding slab of beef MICHAEL PARE) and an ambitious ingénue headed from Cincinnati to Los Angeles who gets carjacked when she stops to use a payphone in one of those creepy, two-mule desert towns in Nevada.
So, of course, our hopeful actress looking for her big break is played by NANCY, who gets even more props in my book for playing against type by neither being a lady of the night nor a complete monster (ala her bitchy, star-making turn in CARRIE.) You see, ALLEN, as I have finally comes to realize, has somewhat of a considerable range and THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT showcases her previously unseen empathetic and maternal sides. Whereas anyone in her right mind would probably press charges against the sailors for kidnapping and car jacking and then not show up for the hearing because she had a really big audition, ALLEN’s character sees something in PARE’s troubled puppy eyes. She packs a hell of a lot into the little line, “I believe that you believe it.”
And since she believes in him, we the audience must too, even as he grows increasingly insufferable and more violent as the film progresses. He trashes the motel room she rents for them, never manages a simple thank you for the packs of smokes she buys for him, and nearly kills her when he subjects them to one of the hokiest high-speed car chases through an orchard ever caught on film. But that’s NANCY, she cares damn it, and for that I cannot fault her for this hot mess of a movie.
Blame could be placed on director JOSEPH RAFFILL, but how can I, in good conscience, hate on the genius responsible for the Kindertraumatic Klassic MAC & ME (not to mention THE ICE PIRATES and MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE )? I could try to fault the special effects department for making every last time travel sequence look like it was ripped from the then cutting-edge “HBO Feature Presentation” teaser trailer, but as a kid of the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s I was raised on that and am quite the soft touch when it comes to rudimentary lighting effects. Haters hate, but back then, that sort of stuff was cool on the first go round.
Seriously though, I think the Stockholm syndrome so elegantly exhibited by ALLEN rubbed off on me. I should not recommend this film to anyone, and I won’t, but I am kind of looking forward to watching its 1993 sequel THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT II. What’s that you say? NANCY ain’t in it… well then, never mind.