Power 98 (1996)

“If God didn’t want us to masturbate, he would’ve made our arms shorter.”

Karlin Pickett, KRZY “Power 98” Radio

Chances are—even if you are a diehard fan—you missed this neo-noir erotic thriller from Eric Roberts’s direct-to-video and direct-to-cable twilight years, one of his—to date—prolific 562 film and television roles. Even his most diehard fans wouldn’t be able watch each and every one of the 74 projects he filmed in 2017 alone. But we sure as hell try.

Why?

Because we, the fans of the video fringe, praise Eric Roberts with the same high regard we bestow to David DeCoteau (A Christmas Cruise) and Fred Olen Ray (A Christmas Princess). Yes, we will sit through a Lifetime damsel-in-distress movie—their Stalked by My Doctor franchise, now up to part 3—for our Eric Roberts fix. Yes, we sat through two Hallmark holiday movies—A Husband for Christmas and The Great Halloween Puppy Adventure—that Eric Roberts shot for David DeCoteau. Yes, we streamed Fred Olen Ray’s Boggy Creek: The Series on series on Amazon Prime just to listen to Eric Roberts’s voiceover narration. Yes, we watched David DeCoteau’s A Talking Cat just to hear Eric Roberts be . . . well, a cat.

Eric Roberts—as well as Nicolas Cage and John Cusack (Arsenal)—is either a down-on-his-luck and past-his-prime desperate thespian taking any job that comes his way to pay the bills—or he’s a brilliantly prolific actor who turns celluloid lead into ribbons of gold. For us, Eric Roberts is always the latter and never the former. When a project needs a slimy scumbag that, regardless of the slime, remains charismatic and likeable, Eric Roberts is the man who never disappoints his audience.

Such is the case with Power 98, the lone fictional writing and directing credit of Jaime Hellman, an equally prolific, Emmy Award-winning TV documentarian director (CBS, Oxygen, CNN) who delivers a script that’s not only well-versed in the film noir genre, but in the radio broadcasting industry as well. Courtesy of Hellman’s well-researched script rife with spot-on expositional broadcast terminology, Roberts’s—as well as Jason Gedrick’s and Steven Tobolowsky’s—radio broadcasting professional characters sound like—unlike most TV series or films set inside radio stations (see Zoo Radio as the worst case example)—real radio broadcasting professionals. Also lending to the film’s credibility: it was filmed, after hours, inside a real radio station: KPHX 1480 AM located Phoenix, Arizona (which doubles as L.A in the film). The sharp cinematography is courtesy of commercial director Kent Wakeford, who got his start behind the lens on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), along with the Blaxploitation classic Black Belt Jones (1973).

The “real” KPHX. Stickers courtesy of Radio Sticker of the Day blogspot.

Unfortunately, Power 98’s direct-to-video low budget format stymied the more-than-competent Hellman and Wakeford celluloid tag team. If this radio-set neo-noir had been backed with a mid-double digit millions budget that would have lent to expanding its 89-minute cable movie length to a 120-minute theatrical length, Power 98 could have achieved the blockbuster erotic thrills of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) or, at the very least, the backstabbing betrayal highs of John Dahl’s indie film noir homage, The Last Seduction (1994). Thus, we’re left with a film that stagnates as being too racy to qualify as a Lifetime damsel-in-distress flick and not racy enough to qualify as an Andrew Stevens and Shannon Tweed erotic soft-core fest for the late night Showtime cable crowd.

Yes, Power 98 could have been so much more. But it could have been much less. And that’s why we love Eric Roberts: he balances the scales of cinematic injustice for the low-budget film maker.

Think back to Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, the definitive radio psycho romp, Play Misty for Me (1971) (which Fatal Attraction later ripped off, only ditching the radio angle), with the disc jockey—and not the fan—as the psycho. Instead of Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female (1992), think Single White Disc Jockey. Now you’ve descended into the twisted and paranoid, murder and revenge-filled neo-noir that is Power 98.

Eric Roberts is Karlin Pickett, a successful shock jock on the air in Phoenix with lots of fans—female fans in particular. After one his (many) one-night stands goes bad—with his date taking a seven story header—Karlin covers up her death and heads to Los Angeles. Rick Harris (Stephen Tobolowsky; Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day and Commissioner Hugo Jarry in HBO’s Deadwood), the owner of a dying classical music station in L.A isn’t fond of Karlin’s brand of humor concerned with penises, testicles, and masturbation, but he does “love the numbers,” so women judging male butt contests and strip poker tournaments on the air, it is.

But this is a film noir and Karlin’s “big plans” for his show needs a patsy, so he picks Jon Price (Jason Gedrick; 1986’s Iron Eagle, 1991’s Backdraft), an ambitious producer at the station with dreams of getting his big break. The screws begin to turn when Jon discovers a creepy call from “Eddie,” in which he confessed to a murdering a woman, was faked—so says Karlin; he set it up “for ratings.” That is until two detectives (Larry Drake of Darkman and Dark Night of the Scarecrow and James Pickens Jr. of TV’s Grey’s Anatomy and The X-Files) inform Jon that the caller wasn’t a crank. Then another dead woman shows up—and this time, all evidence points to Jon. And, with that, it’s a cat and mouse game of turning screws, bitchy women, and smoking guns as the cyanide-laced bourbon flows. And guess who “Eddie” turns out to be?

Courtesy of the film’s distribution through Warner Home Video and Curb Records’ distribution relationship with Warner, be sure to stick around for the end credits, which feature the track “Sea of Love” by Lonesome Romeos. Signed to Curb Records, the Los Angeles-based alt-rock/roots-rock power trio also placed two songs, “U.S Male” and “Oh, You Angel,” on the soundtrack for the baseball comedy, Major League (1989). If you’re into Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Tom Petty (Heartbreakers’ drummer Stan Lynch and keyboardist Bentmont Tench backed the Romeos in the studio on their 1989 and 1996 albums), then you’ll dig the Lonesome Romeos—one of the many forgotten bands that drowned in the grunge wave that swept in from the Pacific Northwest and wiped out the Los Angeles music scene.

You can watch pristine uploads of Power 98 for a small fee on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and You Tube. Or you can watch a pretty clean Finnish-subtitled version on You Tube for free. And be sure to check out Eric’s Vanity Fair career retrospective, it’s a great read.

Yeah, we love Eric Roberts. And always will.

There’s more radio flicks to be had on B&S About Movies with the comedies A Matter of Degrees and FM, and, the slasher flick Open House, and the suspense-thriller Outside Ozona. In fact, this is the first review of our weeklong blowout of movies set inside radio stations. Stay tuned to B&S About Movies on your radio dial!

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

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