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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Mind Snatchers

This indie film gets listed as a sci-fi, though The Mind Snatchers (MS) is more of a drama with a dystopic hint of science. Mostly, it's a drama. A very young Christopher Walken stars as the troubled young man. Joss Ackland stars as the understated Frankenstein who seeks a scientific way to wipe badness out of the human condition. The title seems a direct allusion to Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56). MS was based on a stage play, "The Happiness Cage" by Dennis Reardon. That is also one of the alternative titles to the film. A later re-release of MS got the misleading title "The Demon Within".

Quick Plot Synopsis
James Reese (Walken) comes home to a cocktail party already in progress. He acts like such a jerk that everyone decides to leave. He has some beef a female guest that he punches out some item of furniture. Later, a pair of MPs come to arrest him for assault. Private Reese resists, gets a broken arm, but is taken to an army hospital. There, he is evaluated as a good candidate for a Dr. Frederick's work. Reese is driven to a rural mansion which the Army has set up as a research hospital. There are only three patients: Reese, Miles and Tommy. The later has his head bandaged and screams periodically. Reese continues to be a petulant jerk, but eventually gets to know Miles. Tommy is wheeled away to surgery, but dies on the table. Miles is a loud mouthed braggart, but a lonely man afraid to die (he has terminal cancer). Dr. Frederick is conducting some brain experiments to ease brain ailments such as schizophrenia. Reese is exceptionally rude to Anna, a dowdy red cross nurse whose job it is to entertain the patients. After Reese leaves, Miles comforts the upset Anna, but he succumbs to his horniness and fear of death. He gropes her, then drags Anna away to rape her. Later, upset at his own bad behavior, Miles agrees to the brain probe. Dr. Frederick insists that only Miles can push the button. He does, and quickly becomes an addict, pushing the button continuously. Reese barges in and rips the wires from MIles' head. Miles dies without his pleasure-probe. Reese, now the only patient remaining, refuses to take the probe. He runs away, but is caught and subdued. The probe is inserted into his brain. He refuses to push his own button. The Army Major in charge of the experimental program grabs the button and pushes it. Reese drops. Later, at a press conference, a tidy and vacuous Reese is presented to reporters. He says he feels fine. (the Major is secretly pressing the button). Sociopathic Reese has been cured and is now a mild, polite, tidy young soldier. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
As with many dystopia films, MS is more thought-provoking than "fun." Walken's acting is skillful, even if the character is annoying.

Cultural Connection
Army-phobia: The hippy era's youthful distrust of authority morphed, via the unpopular Vietnam War, into a general mistrust of the military. Disrespect, if not outright condemnation of the military became quite fashionable in the early 70s. The mistrust/villainizing central to MS (and other movies) became popularized to the point that average citizens (of a left-leaning political persuasion) would vent their disapproval of all things military on the individual soldiers returning from duty. The ramifications of this lingers yet today.

Forced Conformity -- Many other movies also deal with the loss of individualism to the state's enforced norm. Orwell's 1984 had rebellious Winston broken into a docile party drone. Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56) had emotionless pod-people replace the 'real' people. Kubrik's A Clockwork Orange had violent Alex subdued by State science. In 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest would also use the format of a 'mental' facility and the anti-authority criminal Mac ultimately subdued by The System's science.

Jerk: The New Normal? -- While Walken's character, Reese, is described as a sociopath, he comes across more as an arrogant jerk in need of a good beating (or two). To 21st century eyes, Reese did not seem mentally ill so much as he was just egotistical (all that mattered was him). Were people in 1972 so much better behaved that a simple jerk stood out as a "sociopath?" Have people of the 21st century become so accustomed to jerks ("bad boys" such as Brad Pitt, et al.) that it's become accepted the norm?

Adolescent Manifesto -- Near the end of the film, Dr. Frederick tries to persuade Reese that his probe will clear up all his bad behaviors and unhappiness. Reese argues what sounds like a rebellious adolescent's manifesto to justify his jerk-hood. He says his violent, lonely, confused, frightened and unhappy qualities aren't sicknesses to be cured. "You can't burn 'em away like warts. You can't just cut 'em out…. I don't like pain, but it defines me. It's part of what I am. Who are you to erase that?…You can't change me. You wouldn't know where to begin. I am James. H. Reese. I am unique." A bit later, Reese laments the ultimate fear of the ego-centric, that his epitaph would read, "Here lies what's-his-name. He wasn't so unique."

Bottom line? MS is a bit obscure, and perhaps not worth great effort to find. It is fairly slow for 90% of its runtime. It can be very talky, with little action. The payoff is nearer the end, when Miles accepts the brain probe, then when Reese is fights it, but becomes a dutiful zombie. The implications are not new new to sci-fi, but still thought provoking. Fans of humanity-snatching films will enjoy it. Viewers accustomed to action films or laser battles will likely be bored.

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