CANNON MONTH 2: The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was originally on the site on June 1, 2022. It was not produced by Cannon, but was released on video in Germany by Cannon Screen Entertainment, who called it John Carpenter’s Das Philadelphia Experiment

One of the greatest memories of my life is a vacation to Washington D.C. when I was 12. I can’t remember it as being perfect. We didn’t have much money, we had to sleep in our van at least one night, we almost got caught in a flood and it was blistering hot. But that stuff never mattered. And sure, I’d come home to my first days of awkward middle school and wondering if I’d ever fit in. But for one blissful night, I sat under the stars somewhere in Virginia and saw a drive-in double feature while eating snuck in sandwiches we made from ham salad and bread we bought cheap at a local grocery store.

PSA: Don’t sneak food into drive-ins. There are so few in the U.S. and many of them survive based on their food sales. Spend a lot on food. Get a Chilly Dilly, the personality pickle.

The first movie we saw was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a mind-blasting onslaught of adventure, non-stop shreiking, monkey brains being eaten right out of their skulls and chest tearing gore. Years later, that film’s writers, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, would do the same thing to me all over again with their classic Messiah of Evil, a movie I was in no way prepared for at a pre-pubescent age.

The second film — which we knew nothing about — was The Philadelphia Experiment.

Based on the book The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility by Charles Berlitz (yes, the very same Berlitz that was part of the family that is The Berlitz School of Languages, as well as a military intelligence officer accused of inventing mysteries and fabricating evidence, which we now call disinformation) and William L. Moore (who circulated the Majestic-12 document that later in my teenage years would overload my Commodre 64 and convince a seventeen-year-old  possibly on drugs me that government troops were coming out of the woods to silence me and kill my family; I woke everyone up and ran into the yard screaming, I was a handful; Moore is also a disinfo agent), the original script for this movie was written by John Carpenter, who couldn’t figure out how it should end, never mind that it was based on a true story.

On that real story: An ex-merchant marine named Carl M. Allen sent an anonymous package marked “Happy Easter” that was Morris K. Jessup’s book The Case for the UFO: Unidentified Flying Objects filled with notes in three blue inks to the U.S. Office of Naval Research. These notes discuss how UFOs fly, discuss alien races and show that aliens are worried that the book knows too much and refer to the Philedelphia Experiment.

Allen then started writing to Jessup as himself and Carlos Miguel Allende warning him to stop studying flying saucers. He claimed that  he was serving aboard the SS Andrew Furuseth and saw the actual event as the ship teleported from Philedelphia to Norfolk, Virginia and then back, during which he saw crewmembers go insane, become intangible and frozen within time. Jessup asked for info which Allen never really proved.

So this is where it gets weird. Well, weirder. Jessup was invited to the Office of Naval Research where he was shown that annotated book and realized that it had the same handwriting as Allen. Why?

Can it get weirder? Sure.

Commander George W. Hoover, one of the members of the Office of Naval Research, showed the annotations to a contractor named Austin N. Stanton, who was the president of Varo Manufacturing Corporation. Stanton got so obsessed that he used his office’s mimeography machine to print multiple copies of the letters and the annotated book. Keep in mind that this was super expensive in the late 50s and also went against so many laws and levels of security clearance.

So what happened to Jessup? No one wanted to read his books, he lost his agent and he eventually committed suicide. As others tried to find Allen, his family would only say that he was a master leg puller. He was also from New Kensington, Pennsylvania — so close to Pittsburgh. They gave researchers tons more of his handwritten notes on the subject.

Whew — yes I will get to the movie — the Varo annotations were used in several conspiracy and UFO books, finally gaining some interest thanks to Berlitz and Moore. Then the movie got made. And then, another sailor named Alfred Bielek claimed he was also on the ship and that the movie was totally accurate. That’s funny because the book ripped off another book, George E. Simpson and Neal R. Burger’s Thin Air.

Let me stop for a second and tell you that this movie has even crazier DNA.

That’s because it was directed by Stewart Raffill.

Sure, he made The Ice Pirates the same year. But afterward, his career is filled with the kind of movies that crush minds. Movies like Mac and MeMannequin 2: Mannequin on the MoveTammy and the T-Rex.

Yes, all the same director.

By the time he got to this movie, the script had been written nine times. Despite Michael Janover (who wrote the horrifying Hardly Working), William Gray (HumongousProm Night) and Wallace C. Bennett (Silent ScreamWelcome to Arrow Beach) being in the credits for the script, Raffill says that he dictated the script and had someone type it.

As for the story, United States Navy sailors David Herdeg (Michael Pare) and Jim Parker (Bobby Di Cicco in 1943 and Ralph Manza in 1984) are on the USS Eldridge in 1943 as Doctor James Longstreet (Miles McNamara in the past, Eric Christmas — who was Mr. Carter in Porky’s — in 1984) makes the ship invisible to radar, but as things go wrong, David and Jim jump overboard and end up in the future — or our past are you confused? — and kidnap Allison Hayes (Nancy Allen) and get into military related hijinks before Jim gets zapped back in time.

There’s some wild science in here as David eventually has to go into a vortex and smash stuff with a fire axe to free the ship, which ends up with burned sailors and men being fused into the ship.

A sequel came out in 1993 with Brad Johnson from Nam Angels as David going up against Gerrit Graham as well as 2012 SyFy reimagining that Pare shows up for. Man, Michael Pare also made Streets of Fire the very same year and really should have been better considered.

This movie went from theaters to video stores faster than any movie had before. Maybe people thought that they had already seen it as The Final Countdown.

None of that is important to me. I have a wonderful memory of sitting in movie theater seats — outside no less — and getting to see two wild movies that I’ve thought of so many times since. We should all have a vacation so wonderful.

You can watch this on Tubi.

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