Times Staff Writer

More than 30 years ago, the late Soviet researcher Semyon D. Kirlian and his wife developed what is now known as Kirlian photography, a process not involving a camera but rather an electrical current passed through a fingertip or other object placed on a section of a film.

Developed, the film usually reveals vividly colored auras, looking something like nature photographs of sea anemones--and which can have great significance for certain psychic researchers.

"The Kirlian Witness" (at the Monica 4-Plex) is an all-too-earnest murder mystery that turns upon this process. When a Soho plant lover (Nancy Boykin) is killed on the roof of her building, the only witness is her favorite plant, which she'd taken there to bask in the moonlight. Armed with Kirlian equipment and a polygraph, her sister (Nancy Snyder), who lives in the building with her architect husband (Joel Colodner), starts playing detective.

It's safe to say that most people would regard this premise as just a mite off the wall. Yet young film maker Jonathan Sarno, an AFI alumnus, tells his story (said to be inspired by a true incident) with a languid solemnity that makes it tough going for all but Kirlian enthusiasts.

"The Kirlian Witness" (rated R--rather severely), made in 1978 and only now being released, proceeds intelligently but is in desperate need of humor and energy to engage our attention. Sarno's strategy should have been to allow us our understandable skepticism and then pull us up short. It's precisely because the premise is so far out, yet clearly has thriller possibilities, that it deserves a much more exciting and provocative treatment than it gets here.


A Corinth Films release. Producer-director Jonathan Sarno. Screenplay Sarno, Lamar Sanders, from a story by Sarno. Camera Joao Fernandez. Music Harry Manfredini. Film editors Len Dell'Amico, Edward Salier. With Nancy Snyder, Joel Colodner, Nancy Boykin, Ted Leplat, Maia Danziger, Lawrence Tierney.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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