After going through my whole life under the impression that our leafy neighbors were just waiting to shove a prickly root up my backside (I was no doubt influenced by anti-plant polemics like The Day of the Triffids and Contamination .7), I was relieved that with 1979’s The Kirlian Witness they could finally take their place along side their fellow classic 1970s detectives like Jim Rockford and Barnaby Jones! How could you not love a rhododendron in a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap yelling the plant equivalent of “Book’em Danno!”?
But these flowery fellows aren’t just Columbo with a stems. They also have other super powers! Like the ability to communicate stuff to unbalanced gals through telepathy! Putting aside the notion that a plant has any thoughts I actually give a crap about (Do I really need another source of stress by having my houseplants bitching about watering them and turning them to the sun?), how serious am I expected to take a movie when a woman screeches at her friend that the plant doesn’t want him touching it? Very freaking seriously because these dang plants are willing to take lie detector tests! Are the dudes who might have killed one of these plant groupie women willing to do that?
By now, your regular low-powered non-vegetation brain is likely scoffing that this is the most ridiculous of hogwash, so far beyond silly-assed that there’s no way they actually made a movie about a plant being the eyewitness to a murder and able to identify the killer. Except that this is all totally based on verified pseudoscience!
Semyon Kirlian was a real guy who accidentally discovered what became known as Kirlian photography. Officially, it amounts to a bunch of mumbo jumbo about capturing pictures of electrical coronal discharges caused by moisture in living tissue. Clearly this is disinformation designed to hide the fact that it really captures the aura of living things! This was proven in Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War and Western dismissal of these results has to be chalked up to jealous propaganda. But what does any of this have to do with a plant going all Encyclopedia Brown on us? Hell if I know, I’m no pseudoscientist!
Rilla and Laurie are sisters. Laurie runs the local plant store where she spends her time scaring off customers who have the audacity to want to buy her precious plants, getting one of her workers to meditate on the job, and having all her plants moved into her loft where she can hang out and chat with them until all hours of the night. Rilla loves her sister and tolerates this, but Rilla’s husband Robert is such a gigantic douche from the get go that he’s as welcome by Laurie and her plants as a Corpse Flower!
But it isn’t just the pointlessly creepy Robert (why does he care if Laurie lives with a bunch of plants?) who harasses Laurie. There’s also her employee Dusty. Dusty wants to get romantic with Laurie but he just doesn’t have the gametes that makes her want to make a diploid zygote with him.
Rilla finds Laurie dead on the roof on their apartment building, but the police have no suspects. Rilla hangs out in Laurie’s apartment getting the hang of all this plant ESP stuff after listening to some handy audio tapes Laurie left behind about it.
As Laurie investigates (by buying occult books, sending away for a Kirlian photography set, and getting a polygraph machine), both Robert and Dusty respond as anyone would – by acting progressively more suspicious so that Laurie isn’t sure who killed her sister until that fateful moment when she makes contact with the plant who saw it all! And this plant is no dummy about low key dull horror films because it shows a little bit of a twist ending!
As is to be expected, The Kirlian Witness is as exciting as staring a plant for 90 minutes. The premise is the sort that could have only existed in the parapsychology obsessed 1970s and forces the characters to say and do the stupidest things in all seriousness. (Laurie says she couldn’t sleep in a room with a plant as a child because she thought it was watching her while Robert goes on a rampage throwing potting plants against the wall of their apartment.)
For much of the film I was looking to my own plants for some help in deciphering the often oblique story as it unfolded. Robert and Dusty met in several scenes for no real reason. Rilla wasted time scrutinizing her Kirlian pictures, squabbled with Robert about her dead sister, made contact with Dusty, setting him up on a plumbing repair sting operation in her new apartment. She also obsessively poured over her plant’s lie detector results that amounted to nothing until everything is finally revealed by the vision she gets from the plant. (Thank goodness the plant wasn’t looking in the other direction when her sister was murdered!)
And yes, this is the sort of movie where Rilla advises that following all that, her psychic plant pal withered and died. The film even shows a heartbreaking shot of the plant’s empty basket! Wait a minute! This just in from my begonia! It’s coming in very clear! We’ve solved it! Rilla’s plant’s aura was very depressed and it died of boredom and embarrassment!
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