Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A not-bad independent thriller, The Mind Snatchers is a thoughtful theater-based medical
science fiction story along the same philosophical lines of A Clockwork Orange. Generally good
performances highlight a genre hybrid that brings credibility to ideas previously limited to mad doctor
movies, and the result is modest but effective. It's also a good opportunity to enjoy Christopher
Walken in a very early performance.
Maladjusted Pvt. James H. Reese (Christopher Walken) threatens some guests at
a party given by his girlfriend Lisa (Birthe Neumann), and when one of them files a complaint,
the MPs arrest him for assault and battery. The police break his arm when he resists, and his
bad attitude brings him to the attention of an Army psychological experiment group. Secretly
taken to a remote house, Reese finds himself in the company of two critical patients. One
has already volunteered for brain surgery. The other (Ronny Cox), is a soldier with a couple of
months to live. Reese finds out he's a semi-prisoner on grounds guarded by dogs and barbed wire
fences, and even though he's not sick like the others, he's being prepared as if he were expected to
volunteer for brain surgery as well.
As a thriller, The Mind Snatchers (equally obscure through its original screen
title, The Happiness Cage) is on the tame side. Pvt. Reese is spirited away to the remote
clinic with a definite lack of mystery, and he makes only the most basic efforts to escape. Most
of the scenes have a stagey feel to them, and 2nd billed Ronny Cox, who made a big splash in the
same year's Deliverance, has a rather broad character to play, that unbalances the film
a bit. In general, the whole story is too subdued, and the doctors and military men who run the project
too lacking in menace, to raise the anxiety level very much.
But there's a lot of compensation in the ideas and assumptions of The Mind Snatchers,
starting with a scientist's desire to use electronic probes in the brain to help patients alleviate
pain. It's an Army program, and the story openly suggests that the armed forces routinely use their
own soldiers as guinea pigs for dangerous experiments. This, of course, has turned out to be true
time and time again, in various kinds of radiation and disease experiments, often with 'volunteers' who
couldn't be expected to know what they were getting themselves into.
Conveniently diagnosed as schizophrenic because he rebels against authority, Pvt. Reese is delivered
into the hands of The Major (Ralph Meeker of
Kiss Me Deadly), an ambitious officer all
too eager to get some use out of 'worthless' men. Brain surgeon Dr. Frederick (Joss Ackland) hides
behind the illusion that all of his subjects are volunteers, terminal cases generously
donating their bodies to science before death. Isolated and depressed in the harsh confines of the
country house, it's no wonder that they respond to the doctor's request, when he's the only person
they can relate to.
But not Reese, who remains defiantly uncooperative. When the success of the project is at stake, The
Major immediately resorts to cheating with the 'voluntary' part of the arrangement, and Reese becomes
a different kind of Clockwork Orange.
The movie is interesting from a Science Fiction point of view because it shows how technology has
taken pulp ideas that were once pure fantasy, and made them practical realities. 'The remote control
of human beings' became a popular theme
as soon radio was invented, and later found use in paranoid invasion fantasies, most notably
Invaders from Mars. 20th-century technology
and its weapons have seen lots of use by governments seeking totalitarian control over their citizens.
Brainwashing and mind control have been debated endlessly, starting with television
advertising and ending with the once-routine practice of subduing inconveniently disruptive people
by having them lobotomized. Dictatorships have always sought practical ways of
eliminating dissent, and often labeled political troublemakers as medical problems, so as to take
them out of circulation.
A newer, excellent science fiction film about a technological invention
and a military conspiracy is Wim Wenders' 1991
Until the End of the World.
The experiments of Dr. Frederick appear to have started with benign inspiration. By suppressing
unbearable pain, terminal patients might be able to live out the
remainder of their lives without resorting to drugs that rob them of their personalities. Very
progressive is the critical eye the film turns towards the subsidizing of 'research' by the Armed
Forces - in this country, it
seems that most pure research is underwritten by the military, with the unstated inference that
the military will be there to exploit any practical applications that might be found. If one counts
our entire space program as military in nature, practically all pure research is really for military
The Mind Snatchers ends with a text card indicating that brain-control experiments were already
well developed in the 1960s, so the film's concept is rooted in reality, and not some
fantastic extrapolation. Other films of the day took on similar subject material. The premise
of the brainwashing used in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is quite credible.
Michael "cut to the commercial hook" Crichton wrote a successful book that got made into an
unsuccessful Mike Hodges movie, called The Terminal Man. In it, a psychotic played by
George Segal is given a brain implant that alternately stimulates or dulls parts of the mind, to
even out the imbalances that cause psychotic episodes. Unfortunately, Segal's brain quickly learns to
tease the implant into providing huge doses of stimulation, turning him into a murderous
monster. This is very similar to Ronny Cox's fate in The Mind Snatchers.
When Cox is wired for his 'happiness' probe, the one that will stimulate a pleasure center to
counteract pain, he immediately overdoses on it, voluntarily giving himself an overload of orgasmic
pleasure. Ironically, sex fantasies were his only outlet in his previous boredom, and led to his
rape of a homely red cross nurse. Now he jolts himself into complete addiction in a matter of minutes,
soon followed by total insensate madness. The doctor is perplexed by what any first-year psych
student is taught - in a reward system, the subject will do anything for a constant supply of
The Mind Snatchers is an okay production that finds a setting for the play but doesn't open
up its ideas or elaborate them, and therefore stays rather small-scale. Director Bernard Girard was
a prolific television talent who garnered much critical notice for writing and directing the excellent
James Coburn thriller Dead Heat on a Merry Go Round. After this feature and the tepid
Stella Stevens psychothriller The Mad Room, his career tapered off. This was only
Christopher Walken's third film, and his first starring role. Marco St. John, excellent as the
amoral, pill-pushing orderly, later played the truck driver who gets his rig blown up by
Thelma and Louise. Susan Travers has a nice genre pedigree, having appeared in
Peeping Tom and
The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Unassuming Bette Henritze, the film's rape victim, has had an
even more interesting career, from The Hospital through The World According to Garp
to Far from Heaven.
Image's DVD of The Mind Snatchers, even with 16:9 enhancement, is merely adequate. The
transfer and encoding are good, but the source is an uneven 35mm print that
tends toward occasional reddishness.
It's intact, but has some scratching around reel changes. The audio sounds as if it came from the
optical track and is sometimes a bit muffled and indistinct, with some lines difficult to make
out. The low-budget picture may not have had a very good mix in the first place.
The extras are simply a bunch of trailers and tv spots that display only small variations on the
same basic trailer cut, and the alternate, The Happiness Cage title sequence. The Mind
Snatchers may have sounded like a more commercial title, but it raises expectations of thrills
unrelated to this movie.
The show received a PG rating in 1972, which was probably the kiss of death, commercially speaking.
Interestingly, when he finds wires coming out of his head, Ronny Cox asks if he's being turned
into a robot, dialogue that looks forward to his participation in the 1987 film RoboCop.
As with the more recent, greatly respected Gattaca, there's a big chunk of Truth about this
picture that gives it a strong intellectual appeal. There's very little Science Fiction here, actually.
Aren't we doping up our kindergarten kids with
drugs, as a quick-fix for destructive, disruptive hyperactivity? They're obviously made
hyperactive from advertising-driven bad diets, and the crazy stimulations of the violent,
insane world they see on television and video games. If drugs work with kids, why not use them on
other social troublemakers, like activists and dissidents?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mind Snatchers rates:
Video: Good -
Supplements: 3 trailers, 3 TV spots, alternate title sequence.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 12, 2003
1. The military nature of our conquest of space is something I
firmly believe is true. It's expressed in science fiction movies from the beginning of the
1950s, as I've editorialized in my review for
Destination Moon, and others. That's
why I'm not afraid for our space program, even after the recent tragedy... the military would
never allow the research to stop.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson