Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mind Snatchers (1972)

Directed by Bernard Girard; written by Ron Whyte (from the play by Dennis Reardon); 1972; color; 94 mins; rated PG; available on DVD; a.k.a. The Happiness Cage, and The Demon Within

Genre: Sci-fi/psychological Thriller
Actors: Joss Ackland, Ralph Meeker, Ronny Cox
Comparable Films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Brainstorm*(also stars Walken)
Movie in a Sentence: Pugnacious misanthrope becomes an unwilling guinea-pig for a military-financed behavior modification experiment involving a button wired directly to the pleasure sensor in the brain.
Should You Watch This? Yes, Walken is magnificent in this and the rest of it is good, too.
RATING: I'll go 8 out of 10, maybe a high eight.
Walken Content: Chock full! Lotsa Walken!
Walken Quote: So Walken's girlfriend visits him in prison, and she's upset because they broke his arm and imprisoned him even though he's innocent of the charges. She's getting all worked up and he's calm as a clam, sitting there telling her she's boring him. She calls him "unhappy."
And he responds, "You remember that man we saw in Frankfurt? The mentally retarded man who just kept smiling while everyone around him was screaming? Well he was happy."

General Thoughts: Christopher Walken's first starring role. Our boy is all over this movie. Does he earn it? You bet your sweet bippy he does. He is a nihilist here, a brooding brute. He is skinny but scrappy, picking fist-fights with girls as foreplay, never once apologizing, not to anyone. He is an animal loose in the world, baring his teeth and snapping at the locals. But he's a rebel who is also in the military (good choice, fella), and they break guys like him for breakfast. Or at the very least transport guys like him to a remote clinic where they do dangerous behavior-modification-brain-experiments on him. And then they eat a healthy breakfast.

But not Walken, his mind's gonna be snatched!

The Mind Snatchers is a psychological thriller with a hint of sci-fi. It is also known as The Happiness Cage, which is its original title, and just between you and me: I like it better. Sure, 'The Mind Snatchers' is sharper, it grabs you (if you will), but it just feels like false bravado and it doesn't quite match the tone or pace of the film. 'The Happiness Cage' works as a title because it speaks to the meat of the film's concern: artificially inducing pleasure as a means of control.

Dr. Frederik is a brain-specialist, played well by Joss Ackland, whom I always think of as the bad guy in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey; sorry Joss if that makes you wince. Here, he is no 'Mad Scientist' out for progress at any cost. He is vocally introspective, sympathetic, and struggling with the ethics of sacrifice for the greater good. He discovers a way to hardwire a button straight to the pleasure-sensor inside a brain. Bing! Like orgasm on tap. Sure, his intentions are noble (science, medicine, therapy, etc) but he just can't control his military sugar-daddy Major Bigdeal So-and-So who naturally wants to militarize the technology, and just who is gonna stop him?

Walken's character, Reese, is antagonistic and an active misanthrope, but I like him because he's funny about it, and I believe him because his integrity never bends. He is likeable in a Jim Morrison kind of way, a brilliant asshole with a stupid chip on his shoulder. Reece is a "button-pusher" (ahem), the kind of guy that is always trying to get a reaction out of people while passionately demanding to be left alone. He is college-educated, and a private in the army stationed in Germany.

When MPs break his arm trying to arrest him for allegedly beating a woman (he had heard his girlfriend's friend trashing him, so he stares her down (he's SO intense in this), and tells her flat-out, "I don't care if you're a girl, I'll punch you right in the mouth. Get up." She leaves with daggers in her eyes, but untouched) it turns out his psych profile matches what Frederik is looking for in a test-patient, so off he goes to Dr. Frederik's isolated, prison-like clinic.

Ronny Cox (you might remember him as the bad guy in both RoboCop and Total Recall) is Sgt. Buford Miles. This cowboy hat wearing, happy-go-lucky hick is Reece's roommate at the clinic, and he is a good foil for him. Miles' manner, his drawl and country-boy naivete are annoying at first, but it is played right, and it makes him endearing in a younger brother kind of way. Perhaps a slightly retarded younger brother kind of way.

The Mind Snatchers has a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest kind of feel, though it pre-dates the film by three years (Ken Kesey wrote the novel Cuckoo's in 1962) and it definitely has a spirit of its own. It is of a darker breed, more willing to wax philosophically about these concepts they're dealing with: motivation, control, social responsibility.

Walken had called the film "a piece of garbage". But then again, he also feared that his career was over. Fortunately, he is a professional performer, not a critic. And, fortunately again, he was wrong on both counts. Though it was flawed in areas: pacing, transitions, the ending could have been stronger, and his girlfriend in the film was an awful actress. Despite these weaknesses and more, this was no garbage. This is Walken marking his territory. This is Walken taunting his enemies. This is Walken killing it. The end of his career?

No, Chris. This is just the beginning.

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