Monday, November 23, 2015

The Mind Snatchers (1972)

          Prior to achieving stardom with The Deer Hunter (1978), Christopher Walken played his first leading film role in this peculiar sci-fi drama based upon Dennis Reardon’s play The Happiness Cage. (The film is sometimes exhibited under the same title as the play.) While The Mind Snatchers is a frustrating piece of work thanks to half-baked ideas and a meandering narrative, it’s fascinating to watch Walken’s acting because he does not employ the affectations that later defined his screen persona. Bereft of his stop-and-start vocal rhythm and sudden gestures, Walken delivers a powerfully unadorned performance—even though, ironically enough, he portrays a character whom others perceive as being mentally unbalanced.
          Set in West Germany, the picture introduces U.S. Army Private James H. Reese (Walken) as a volatile troublemaker. He gets into fights with fellow soldiers, partygoers, and even his long-suffering European girlfriend. After Reese is brought to the attention of Dr. Frederick (Joss Ackland), the psychiatrist behind a mysterious experiment backed by the Army, Reese is transported to a remote hospital with only two other patients—talkative Southerner Sergeant Buford Miles (Ronny Cox) and a young soldier named Tommy, whose head is bandaged and whose only communication is involuntary screaming. Turns out Dr. Frederick designed an experimental probe that he inserts directly into the brain. The probe connects to antenna protruding through the subject’s skull, and the antenna relates to a switch the subject has at his disposal. Whenever the subject feels angry or depressed, the subject can hit the switch and stimulate a pleasure response. The film’s drama, such as it is, stems from the fact that Dr. Frederick wants only voluntary subjects, so he plays mind games with Buford and Reese in the hopes they will volunteer.
          That’s where the movie veers off-course. Reese comes across as a one-note rebel, patterned too closely after the protagonist of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Kesey’s book was published in 1962, and Reardon’s play premiered in 1969.) Meanwhile, Buford is a compendium of writer-convenient extremes. The story also includes the dull cliché of a cold-hearted Army general who demands results no matter the human cost. (Old pro Ralph Meeker essays this role in a forgettable performance.) By the time The Mind Snatchers spirals into its highly predictable final act, logic problems have achieved crushing weight, and the repetitive cycles of the storyline have grown tiresome. That said, director Bernard Girard—a veteran of episodic television who made a handful of minor features—films scenes quite well, and Walken and Cox give the best imaginable renditions of poorly conceived characters.

The Mind Snatchers: FUNKY

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