Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
The best reason to see this film (aka: The Happiness Cage, aka: The Demon Within) is for an
early and characteristic performance by Christopher Walken. The film itself is a sombre, small-scale
piece, developed from a play. It betrays its origins through plenty of dialogue, some suspense, but
little real action. This is one of those early 1970s films revealing a fashionable anger against the
industrial military complex, but which offers no radical agenda of its own. Director Bernard Girard
was an obscure figure that worked for many years in television on such shows as Rawhide,
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the cult M. Squad, as well as turning out a small number
of generally undistinguished features. He tapped a successful vein at this time, for not only did he
helm this but shortly afterwards the related Name For Evil (1973) in which a disoriented
Robert Culp faces bewildering hallucinations.
The Mind Snatchers is also about mental confusion, but here the emphasis is on deliberate manipulation of the brain rather disorientation. There is no inexplicable mental collapse on show here. Instead we are confronted with a state-sponsored 'trip', a mind control experiment, undertaken in Germany on American soldiers conveniently designated 'psychotic' by the powers who need subjects to operate on. As the alienated and violent James Reese, Walken breaks his arm in a dispute with the military police - and instead of the cooler, soon finds himself in an enigmatic hospital, one of only three patients.
Outside of the opening scenes, showing Reese's fraught social interactions and arrest, and the last, showing him on display at a press conference, the film never leaves the institution's grounds. Shot atmospherically on location, the place is a large, empty echoing establishment, whose calm sanatorium like atmosphere is at odds with the doom it threatens. It is a cold, efficient clinic, reminiscent of Cronenberg's world of white-coated atrocities just starting out on film at the same time. As a hospital it is as much understaffed as it is lacking in patients (although barbed wire and dogs keep the few people in.) Besides Dr Frederick, the orderly Shannon, a nurse and Red Cross visitor, no one else is in evidence. For a supposed high priority government project this is disconcerting, to say the least. Like Reese we expect something more than this to rail against. He shares a room briefly with a third patient (whose unpredictable yells are a disturbing touch), then is left to interact with Miles, a sergeant with dangerous mood swings. A bond gradually a form between these two men - but not until Miles' health suddenly deteriorates and he has volunteered for the experiment, which has already killed the last patient.
The cool, dangerous and distanced persona of Reese is perfect for Walken. This was his third film (after The Anderson Tapes) and as the incarcerated private he inculcates exactly the right degree of repressed rage and wariness the role demands. Although the film is dialogue heavy, the central relationship, that between Reese and Miles works well; Miles' taunting sexuality, nervous anticipation and jittery humour contrasts well with Reese's objective assessment of his exploitation. We sense Reese's reserves of strength, which makes the end of the film all the more shocking. As Miles, Ronnie Cox is also a strong character, but we know that he probably does not have the survival instinct of our hero, and his fate justifies our suspicions. Together the two hold the screen for long minutes, making it a shame that Joss Ackland's stodgy Dr Frederick lowers the suspense and tension on each appearance. In fact, Frederick's ignorance and belated conscience struggle, after "23 years research on one small part of the human brain," is one of the least convincing aspects of the plot. Bemused and lethargic, he seems to have strolled in from a far more genteel story, and his concerned crackpot character never really catches fire. The same might be said for the oily Major, played by the normally excellent Ralph Meeker who has little to do here save trigger the experimentation on Reese.
First however, it is Miles who is hooked up to the mind-snatching machine, which has an effect (albeit more sinister) similar to the 'orgasmatron' familiar from Woody Allen's Sleeper. As a violence inhibiter and psychosis reducer, the effects of the self-activated machine are certainly effective. Miles describes it as like being in "a huge woollen glove," before he clutches his crotch in self-absorption. ("Get the bugs out and I'll be the first in line, Doctor," admits the grim Major with unconscious irony.) Reese has a greater sense of himself as an individual however, and initially refuses the treatment, saying, "pain defines me - it makes me what I am."
The final press conference is abrupt and chilling. Reese is caught in a freeze frame while the Major proclaims blithely that "The military is always interested in the betterment of mankind," and so on. In a way, which might have reflected the disbelief on the face of a contemporary audience, Reese's fate has been the loss of individuality, of emotion and power. This is an ultimate fate familiar from many other screen dystopias, and is perhaps where the film most clearly reveals its roots. These days we may prefer our messages less hammered home, but for those who enjoy their brainwashing movies cold and without the trimmings, this can be recommended.