“The film you are about to see is based on a true story. The names of places and persons have been changed to protect the innocent. But it could have happened anywhere or to anyone, even to you.”
So says the text that opens Water Power, hardcore pioneer Sean Costello’s notorious 1976 shocker. And, in fact, before Michael Kenyon strapped an enema kit to his hip and began his reign of terror attacking women around the college campus and community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1975, he wood-shopped his heinous act on victims around the University of Oklahoma, my alma mater that stands majestically not thirty miles to my south. So, I suppose this COULD happen just anywhere.
An incredibly dark and transgressive piece of filmmaking, Water Power is a melange of truth and fiction as it uses the quite real Michael Kenyon case and blends it with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, lead character of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, released the same year and likewise somewhat inspired by a newsworthy figure (would-be assassin Arthur Bremmer). It tells the story of Burt (Jamie Gillis), a strange, unbalanced loner who lives in a squalid New York apartment surrounded by pornography that has been cut from magazines and taped to his wall like a shrine. Along with matching Travis Bickle’s solitary lifestyle, Burt allows personal relationships to deteriorate at the expense of his own sick fantasies as evidenced in a scene with his girlfriend, Barbara (Crystal Sync). After visiting a house of ill-repute where he learns about the outre kink of administering high colonics (thanks to the demonstration of the craft by Eric Edwards, Marlene Willoughby, and Jeanne Silver), Burt takes his misogynistic frustrations out on a flight attendant neighbor (Clea Carson) which causes him to spiral downward and into a spree of similar crimes. As Burt quickly becomes a citywide menace, the police (including C.J. Laing and John Busco) rush to immobilize him at any cost.
The interesting thing about Water Power is how it is really pornography in the strictest sense of the word. There is no joy or happiness in much of the explicit sex, just a catalogue of mind-numbing depravity. But Water Power wasn’t made because Costello had a raw enthusiasm to exploit the enema fetish which, as it turned out, wasn’t much a market to be mined. Instead, after getting volun-told by his mob backers that a Michael Kenyon/Taxi Driver mashup was a sure fire hit that he had to make, Costello wisely went in the opposite direction and only allowed a few moments to serve as a point of erotic normalcy, including a brief, transactional encounter between Gillis and Sharon Mitchell early in the film. Everything else has an unpleasant edge due to Gillis’s connection to it. Even a scene of make-up sex between Gillis’s flight attendant neighbor (Clea Carson) and her boyfriend is sullied due to Gillis’s voyeuristic intrusion. Any fire created by Laing and Busco in their brief interlude deep in the second act is extinguished by Costello’s cross-cutting between it and Gillis’s violation of two teenage sisters he catches in a lesbian tryst.
As far as nutty curiosities go, Water Power is a true specimen. It’s doesn’t work much as porn but, ironically, works as a nightmarish thriller because of the porn. Aside from Gillis’s performance, which is both intensely focused and absolutely believable, the lack of simulation in the film’s more graphic passages carries a great weight of realism which inches the tableaux on display in Water Power closer to real life than is comfortable. Costello presses this kink as much as he can but there is a wildcatting approach to the film’s tone which stands to reason since there wasn’t a pile of “Enema Fuck Films For Dummies” books lying around for him to reference. Gillis is a presence and a half but the attacks on the teenage girls and Laing are met with cracked smiles and barely concealed giggles that occur during the high-pitched histrionics.
Shaun Costello borrows liberally from Taxi Driver in both spirit and letter on more than one occasion but once Burt begins keeping a diary in a spiral notebook, Bernard Herrman’s score from Scorsese’s film is laid atop disembodied lines such as “January 21st… Enemas have become the most important thing in my life” and “I can’t just stick tubes up their ass and hope for the best.” But far from cribbing from Scorsese, Costello also weaves in a little of Brian De Palma’s influential, underground classics Greetings and Hi, Mom! by using the overt Hitchcockian connection with Burt’s peeping and his taste for porn, both traits of Jon Rubin, the protagonist of both films played by, you guessed it, Robert De Niro. But even if that’s too tenuous a connection to believe, Costello steals Herrmann once again, but this time lifts both the beginning and end themes for De Palma’s Sisters, the latter in the aid of Water Power matching the sinister tone of that film’s unresolved ending. And, like Marilyn Chambers in David Cronenberg’s Rabid, Jamie Gillis casually strolls past a theater awash in promotional material for Carrie during one of his nighttime prowls.
Water Power isn’t as clever or as insightful as the films it references nor is it as fun as “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” the evergreen Frank Zappa song from Zappa in New York that was recorded in late 76 and chronicled Kenyon’s exploits. But Water Power does pull off showing the ugly side of conventional cinema’s anti-heroes due to its real sense of location and the fully committed performance by Jamie Gillis. There is simply no ending for Water Power that would satisfy an audience outside his arrest and conviction or murder at the hands of C.J. Laing which is quite the opposite for Taxi Driver which allows Travis a brief respite before setting him off again. As noxious as the assaults are, they’re not ineffectively made but, simply put, once the central conceit is set up, there really aren’t a lot of places this film can go and there is just so much horrific action one should be expected to endure. Some of the films made during the Golden Age of Pornography could sometimes fall into hostile territory but here, hostile territory was the only thing on the menu.
In something that could only be seen as a positive for humanity, Water Power held little interest for audiences in 1976 but it still serves as a jolting piece of historical filmmaking that could have only been produced during the smallest window of time. And, in terms of porn being one of the few places where you’re liable to see just anything at any given moment, once you’ve seen Jamie Gillis masturbating to climax while water from C.J. Laing’s asshole sprays all over his dick, you know that you’ve seen something that could only be brought to you through the magic of cinema.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing is, as they say, a matter of taste.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain