Tim Matheson and Meg Tilly are Faced with a Small Town’s Every Dark Impulse



Don’t let the cover art of Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ newly released Blu-ray edition of 1984’s Impulse fool you; the film is neither a virtual-world head-trip nor is it an erotic thriller.  

Impulse is an eerie little tale of Smalltown, America run amok in spite of itself.  As the story unfolds from its opening frames to its final fade-out, we are witness to a mass social breakdown, one which specifically emanates from unknown origin.  Before we even meets our protagonist couple (played by Tim Matheson and Meg Tilly), we witness an earthquake that shakes up not only Main Street, but a strange, secluded concrete containment structure deep in the nearby woods.  Only by the very end will the significance of its quake-induced damage be apparent.  But from the start, the town’s quaint Norman Rockwell facade will indeed be rocked well.

Tilly carries much of the film, and is uniquely suited to do so, as the part requires both emotional weight and a strong femininity.

Director Graham Baker (who’d go on to some greater success with 1988’s Alien Nation) realizes his film in a mostly no-frills fashion.  That said, he quite effectively leans into an atmosphere of dim melancholy while remaining otherwise rooted in common perception.  More direct in its storytelling approach than, say, the similarly themed 1973 film from George Romero, The Crazies (a connection that Impulse director Baker points out on his audio commentary track), or even Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which hit harder the same year, Impulse is willfully deliberate in its revelations about why the ordinarily polite denizens of this non-specific American town begin acting out in less than humane ways.

Meg Tilly and Tim Matheson in IMPULSE.

Matheson (Animal House) and  Tilly (The Big Chill) star as young couple Stuart and Jennifer, in town to be with her family following a suicide attempt by her mother, made during a particularly venomous mother/daughter phone call.  It was all wildly out of character, landing her on life support in the local hospital, at the care of an altruistic medical genius played by welcome veteran actor, Hume Cronyn.  Tilly carries much of the film, and is uniquely suited to do so, as the part requires both emotional weight and a strong femininity.  Matheson makes for a good, well-meaning big-city handsome academic who’s less welcome in this town than he initially realizes.

Soon, it’s obvious that dear old mom isn’t the only one negatively affected by whatever’s going on.  People start acting out their every impulse in all manner of ways.  When a stranger in the town square takes a leak on Stuart’s car, one’s first assumption isn’t that the old man really didn’t like Up the Creek.  Soon enough, theft, sharp comments, and childhood reversions give way to public physical passions and even cold-blooded killing.  At one point, a jealous country boy played by a young Bill Paxton demonstrates his unrequited passion for Jennifer by painfully snapping his own fingers, screaming all the while.  Who is and isn’t affected by the bizarre phenomenon, and why, is a mystery throughout.

Bill Paxton in IMPULSE.

The slow-burning and serious tone of Impulse is reflected in Graham Baker’s optional director’s commentary track.  The former commercial director, sporting a deep UK accent, shares select aspects of his methods and intentions (mostly successfully realized) while walking the viewer through the film, scene by scene.  

The only other extras on the Blu-ray are an array of trailers for the film and related Kino Lorber product (including an R-rated trailer for Matheson’s aforementioned comedy Up the Creek).  

Anyone ready and willing to unearth a mid-eighties allegory on suppressed behaviors and rapid societal degeneration could do much worse than this handsome high definition offering.  Acquiring Impulse is not a regrettable action.


The images used in this review are used only as a reference to the film and do not reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray.