The Mind’s Eye (2015)

First published by EyeforFilm

Filmmakers love to look back to the movies that were the bread and butter of their formative years, helping make them who they are today – and so inevitably, much as the spirit of the Seventies (along with that period’s electoral scandal, oil crises, Middle eastern terrorism, protracted wars broad) returned with a vengeance to the films of the early Noughties in a seemingly endless succession of remakes, reboots and reimaginings, now the Reagan era is coming in for its own nostalgic reevaluation. As a slew of films adopts the motifs and moods of that decade, Eighties archaism is sweeping the margins of genre cinema. Sometimes these pastiches amp up the absurd excesses of their targets for broad laughs – think Slither (2006), Hobo With A Shot Gun (2011), WolfCop (2014), Kung Fury (2015). Yet writer/director/producer/cinematographer Joe Begos’s latest film The Mind’s Eye prefers a different paradigm, established in films like The House of the Devil (2009), Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), Cold In July (2014), It Follows (2014) or his own feature debut Almost Human (2013): for The Mind’s Eye once again conjures a pure world – somehow both entirely artificial and utterly authentic – from the tropes of Eighties cinema, and if his tongue is in his cheek, he certainly never lets it poke out.

Drifter Zack Connors (Graham Skipper) has psychokinetic powers that he cannot fully control, drawing the attention of Dr Michael Slovak (John Speredakos). Connors agrees to join the private Slovak Institute in return for access to his similarly gifted friend Rachel Meadows (Lauren Ashley Carter) – but after months of experiments, drugs and painful DNA extractions, and no contact with Meadows, Connors decides to locate his girlfriend on the property and bust out, setting him at odds with the megalomaniac Slovak and his army of (mostly bearded) henchmen.

The Mind’s Eye may open, like Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982), with the police harassing an unassuming-looking vagrant whose powers they fail to recognise, but the principal template here is David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), whose shoddy, shadowy organisations, exploding heads and wide-eyed psi duels are all essential to the film’s lovingly assembled retro texture. The latex and practical effects, the lighting dominated by primary red and blues, and the synth-heavy score by Steve Moore, all contribute to the strong Eighties vibe (even if the film is expressly set in the early Nineties) – but what is perhaps most Cronenbergian here is the stony-faced nature of the whole enterprise.

Even as these characters act out their inherently silly story of empowerment fantasy and escapist revenge, and even as they engage in psychic face-offs that make them look as though they are suffering from constipation or an aneurysm, and even as ‘bad guy’ psychokinetic Travis Levine (Noah Segan) sports an unironic eyepatch while working for someone with the surname Slovak, no-one ever cracks a smile – let alone a joke. This apparent humourlessness serves a double purpose: it captures the improbable earnestness of a certain strand of cinema; but it also, coming with the benefit of hindsight, pinpoints precisely what was always so funny about this type of film. It’s a lo-fi trip back to the future – and the presence of Larry Fessenden – as Connors’ grizzled father – is also, as always, welcome.

Anton Bitel