Man, I wanted so much to like this movie going in. I hadn’t heard the name of Joe Begos before, but as anyone who’s been following my recent reviews will know, I’ve sort of fallen in love with the indie horror genre. Go back and read my scribblings on Carnage Park, Darling, Pod, Jug Face, and Southbound and you’ll see that trend develop before your very eyes! In addition to that, I’ve come to enjoy the screen work of Larry Fassenden, and in particular Lauren Ashley Carter – but I won’t gush here in my review of The Mind’s Eye.
It’s weird – I have no trouble slamming big budget failures like Independence Day: Resurgence and Suicide Squad (I’m not specifically talking about box office receipts), but I feel a need to protect the indie horror movement from scathing criticism because of the restrictions they operate under. I was discussing this with a friend the other night, and I’ve touched on it before in some of the recent reviews. It’s unforgivable, in my opinion, to take a budget of upwards of $100 million (these days that figure approaches $200 million more often than not) and produce a movie that is so poorly realized onscreen after you take away all the greenscreen. With that kind of money you can afford to get a good writer, good talent in front of and behind the camera, but so often you end up with a screenplay that is garbage (Fantastic Four) and performances that are phoned in (mostly because of that same screenplay). Indie moviemakers don’t have the luxury of options. They can’t afford to rent the best equipment, they don’t have the clout or money for the licenses to shoot in public areas – in many occasions they’re even restricted by the weather. Don’t plan location scenes that call for rain – and if you didn’t plan for rain and it comes along anyway, it can set the entire production back a couple of days.
It’s easy to watch an independent horror movie and simply criticize the lighting and acting because you’re used to Hollywood values, but I’ve come to look at them in a different way: how are they using the budget, how are the performances, the plot, the story … When you start to see movies through different lenses, I feel you begin to lose your preconceptions about what a movie is, beyond the obvious entertainment vehicle. So this is how I approached The Mind’s Eye. I wanted to see if Joe Begos could bring to this table the same things that Mickey Keating (Darling) and Chad Crawford Kinkle (Jug Face) have done – and given that Lauren Ashley Carter has done great work with both of the aforementioned, I was deeply curious as to how she’d perform under Begos.
And I hate to say that I didn’t love the movie. It pains me to say that, and the why of that is in the preceding paragraphs. Why draw the agony out, though? I’ll get right to it.
I think I was primed to be down on the movie from the opening scene, but there were many factors that led to an unrewarding viewing of the movie. That opening scene – it’s straight out of the Stallone game-changing action movie First Blood. It’s so close in content and tone that I sometimes will stop a movie right then and there for that reason alone. It’s too bad, really: the opening credit montage of Zack (Graham Skipper, who looks like a distracting Telepod-combination of Daniel Radcliffe and Will Forte) walking through a somewhat bleak winter scene are great, but then the remainder of the scene is a direct lift from First Blood where Rambo, minding his own business, is confronted by an overbearing small town cop. Plagiarism? Impossible to say, but also impossible to believe Begos, who wrote, directed, and photographed The Mind’s Eye, has never seen the Stallone movie. But it goes from there to a story that for all intents and purposes could have been the direct-to-video sequel to David Cronenberg’s Scanners. While I’m not a huge fan of post-Dead Ringers Cronenberg, I am a HUGE fan of everything he did before then, and Scanners is up there. When you talk about present day indie horror, it’s worth comparing the current scene to movies like Shivers, Scanners, Rabid (trivia: Ivan Reitman executively produced this), and The Brood, all of which could be filmed by many of the current crop of indie moviemakers. It’s an unfair comparison for the most part – Cronenberg remains at the pinnacle of low-budget moviemaking on top of a mountain that many people are just unable to scale themselves. What Begos delivers is an underwhelming, utterly derivative take on Scanners, but done in a way that shows there’s little to be gained by trying to make a Cronenbergian movie without possessing that same talent. The only movie that’s come close to that same evocation of mood is Pontypool, directed by Bruce McDonald, which wisely stayed away from the kind of material early Cronenberg was famed for.
Begos tackles his story directly, as if trying to emulate Cronenberg as much as he’s capable of doing, but the result is just one of familiarity. The scenes of body transformation with the evil Doctor Slovak (John Spederakos) are reminiscent of Cronenberg, but that’s all. The scenes where both protagonist Zack and Slovak are uninspired copycats of Scanners, but there’s nothing new brought to the table. In fact, in act 3 of Scanners when it was beyond clear that Darryl Revok had become utterly, totally evil, Slovak just becomes a collection of vaguely silly mannerisms with a squeaky voice, and it’s either what Begos was going for, or as a director he was unable to rein in the actor. The actual climax – an eye-straining, vein-popping, psychic mind-to-mind faceoff lacks everything that made the Revok – Cameron Vale conflict so fantastic to watch. Neither actor nor director is up to the task of equaling or topping it, and it comes off as dull and over-trying. As well as the psychic battle, there is also a head bursting scene – all of which add up to a movie that doesn’t ever go past homage status.
Something else bugged the hell out of me too – I return to the notion that indie directors make better use of their budgets by supplementing what they don’t have with skill in other areas. One of those areas is attention to detail. It doesn’t cost a thing, but in this movie, set in 1990, the camera tracks forward past a bookcase in one scene, and there, front and center is one of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones novels – a series that didn’t start until the second half of the 90s. In another scene, a car interior, Begos can be seen for a long couple of seconds in the rearview mirror until sliding out of view. I can forgive a lot of things in indie movies, but I can’t forgive either of those.