On inexpensive vs cheap, homage vs. rehash, and expression vs. affectation
The Mind's Eye RLJ Entertainment
Director: Joe Begos
Screenplay: Joe Begos
Starring: Graham Skipper, John Speredakos, Lauren Ashley Carter, Larry Fessenden, Noah Segan, Michael A. LoCicero and Matt Mercer
Not rated / 1 hour, 27 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
First he wanted to be John Carpenter. Now, writer/director Joe Begos wants to be David Cronenberg. And just as he proved himself a woefully unworthy successor to the former with 2013's Almost Human, so too does he embarrass himself in his attempt to riff on the latter.
The Mind's Eye, Begos' second feature, is largely a rehash of Cronenberg's Scanners. But despite being made 35 years later, this feels like a lousy beta version of it, as if a young Cronenberg handed the idea to an incompetent student filmmaker, perhaps offering a few tips on how to convincingly make a head explode but otherwise letting him sink or swim.
"Sinking" would not do the final result justice. Rather it's forcibly submerged underwater and drowned by its own lousy production values. There are filmmakers who can take ultra low budgets and use them to their advantage (Shane Carruth and Joel Potrykus are two that come to mind), and then there are filmmakers that take ultra low budgets and make them look like ultra low budgets. Begos is firmly in the latter category. Aside from the quality of the makeup and practical effects and a few bold, nightmarish lighting choices (huge swaths of glowing reds and blues), this movie would be almost indistinguishable from the kinds of stuff your Film Studies-major roommate made during sophomore year of college using the camcorder handed down from his parents.
This isn't even one of those cheap, grimy horror films that's fascinating in its raw materials, or in the visceral force bleeding through its frames. A movie like that, at least, could be fascinating for any number of reasons. But this is just garden-variety amateurism. The Mind's Eye is very clear about what it wants to be, which makes it very clear just how badly it's trying to be it. That it doesn't have the elegance of psychological tension of Scanners is no crime; it's that it seems to have no conception of how to create an affect of its own. We are introduced to our central psychokinetic, Zack (Graham Skipper), during an opening scene in which he is confronted by a pair of small-town cops while walking down a lonely rural road. The ensuing altercation does not go well for the cops, but he's ultimately apprehended and brought to Dr. Michaael Slovak (John Speredakos), who offers Zack a sympathetic helping hand. He says he's been studying people like Zack for years. He insists that he can help them control their powers, through medication and therapy. He has an institute nearby. In fact, he has under his care a woman from Zack's past - Rachel (Lauren Ashley Carter), who is apparently an even more powerful telekinetic than Zack and with whom he seems to share an intimate history.
The film takes place during Zack's stay at the institute - and by "institute" I mean "a house in the woods" - and through his eventual escape attempt in the surrounding areas, once he inevitably figures out that Slovak isn't nearly as pure of intent as he pretends to be. In fact, Slovak has isolated the chemicals that make these telekinetics what they are, and set about gradaully draining it from them, and putting himself on a nightly regimen of injections to gain their powers. Once he's finished, he'll be more powerful than all of them.
Begos' ballsiest sequence captures Slovak's thirst for power in all its euphoric agony. He intercuts a sex scene between Zack and Rachel with one of the good doctor's nightly injections - the needle penetrating the back of his neck, followed by a hilarious slow-motion shot of Slovak's O face - for a sequence that is equal parts intentionally and unintentionally funny. Begos knows exactly what he's getting across on a basic level, but little idea how to express or emphasize all the ironic juxtapositions he's trying to play with. Cronenberg uses the body for psychosexual interrogation; Begos uses it as an affectation.
And that is The Mind's Eye at its best. At its worst, this is a film whose limited resources keeps exposing its limited imagination. Its only locations are a pair of houses and the woods between them, but the filmmakers never take real advantage of the geographical limitations - either in the construction of their narrative or the framing of their action within the would-be claustrophobic setting of a small residential space. At its worst, this is a film with writing that directly contradicts scenes we've just seen play out on screen - as if there was a change of plans and no one remembered to re-loop the dialogue. At its worst, this is a film that repeats one scenario over and over and over again - guy points a gun at someone, telekinetic uses his or her power to take control of that gun and save the person's life (or their own) - revealing either that Begos is too lazy or too unimaginative to think of anything else. (This exact thing happens, like, a half-dozen times.)
At its worst, this is a film that has to rely on the acting skills of a cast that ... well, that shouldn't be relied on. Carter is fine, but Skipper and Speredakos are both particularly bad in roles that, in fairness, require a lot of them. Skipper has an interesting combination of qualities - he looks like Daniel Radcliffe's long-lost brother, sounds like a long-lost Culkin, and has a distinctly penetrating, nervous set of eyes - but without the ability to deliver a single convincing line. Speredakos has the opportunity to chew a lot of scenery as the increasingly unhinged villain, but the wilder the character gets, the less menacing he appears to be - even after the sound design team gives his voice a Linda Blair-in-The Exorcist makeover. He's more silly than scary.
Perhaps that should have been the angle all along: a character study of a brilliant doctor embittered by his own feelings of inadequacy, going out of his way to become all that he ever wanted to be and more - to gain all the power he's envied from the patients he's studied - only for him to achieve his dream and still, in the end, be seen as ineffectual, and profoundly inadequate. I have a feeling that is a story to which Begos could relate.