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DVD SAVANT

The Mind Snatchers


The Mind Snatchers
Image Entertainment/Life Size
1972 / Color / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 93min. / The Happiness Cage / Street Date February 11, 2003 / $24.99
Starring Christopher Walken, Ronny Cox, Joss Ackland, Marco St. John, Susan Travers, Ralph Meeker, Bette Henritze
Cinematography Manny Wynn
Production Designer William Molyneux
Film Editor Sidney Katz
Original Music Christopher Dedrick, Phil Ramone
Written by Ron Whyte from the play The Happiness Cage by Dennis Reardon
Produced by George Goodman, Richard Lewis, Joseph Papp
Directed by Bernard Girard

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.

Synopsis:

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 purposes.  1

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.

(spoiler)

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 reward.

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Good
Supplements: 3 trailers, 3 TV spots, alternate title sequence.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 12, 2003


Footnote:

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.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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