The ’80s are back. What’s resurrected this era formerly mocked at every opportunity by the following decades will always remain a mystery — we could, perhaps, look at the increasingly complicated world around us and think that the ’80s were a simpler time populated by fellow humans who were easily comprehendable, but we’ll simply never know what’s kickstarted this recent wave of retro callbacks. It took Stranger Things for the movement to go mainstream, but — at least in the horror genre — the ’80s have been back for a while now.
Part of that movement is writer/director Joe Beggos, whose 2013 science fiction/horror hybrid Almost Human was made to honor that ’80s era of John Carpenter and other, more trashy video store fare — you know, the kinds that came in those extra large VHS cases. While not a particularly good film, it at least was an admirable one — made on a low budget and employing only practical, in-camera effects.
Much of the same team has returned for Beggos’ second feature, The Mind’s Eye, which this time is honoring ’80s-era David Cronenberg, very notably Scanners, along with Firestarter-era Stephen King. Made with the same spirit of Almost Human, the plot is very reminiscent of Cronenberg’s 1981 head-exploder, but tinged in a more simplistic grindhouse/EC Comics vibe. Whereas Cronenberg’s Scanners, as well as his other early “body horror” films had something philosophical to say about a variety of issues, be it politics, the self, or the even the sexual revolution, The Mind’s Eye doesn’t have much to offer beyond, “His WHOLE head came off!” And that’s fine. Not every trip into the horror genre need be rife with a social message or satire. Sometimes it’s okay that a film is just a violent, primary-colored romp into over-the-topness, and that, most definitely, The Mind’s Eye is.
Graham Skipper, who portrays unofficial scanner Zack Connors, and who looks too much like Brooklyn 99's Joe Lo Truglio, takes on an outlandish character within the outlandish confines of The Mind’s Eye and does as convincing a job as anyone possibly could have. Some of the dialogue he’s forced to render is unbearably silly, and one gets the impression even he feels silly having to say it, which can hinder his performance somewhat.
His scanner-girlfriend, Rachel (Lauren Ashley Carter), however, offers a shaky performance — one that tears you away from whatever intrigue The Mind’s Eye manages to establish. Forgiving that the absurd elements of the plot make it difficult to suspend disbelief, Carter has trouble making it feel real. She seems to be concentrating so hard on making her character believable that her sheer insistence is what calls out her performance is disingenuous.
Noah Segan, who has turned up in a nice helping of solid horror fare over the years (Deadgirl; Starry Eyes), offers a nice turn as Travis Levine, a Snake Plissken-eyed protege of sorts who serves as a henchmen with some scanning abilities of his own. Though his character is underused and proves somewhat ineffective by the end of his art, Segan once again proves he’s a fun actor to watch in films with out-there concepts.
And then there’s John Speredakos as Dr. Slovak, who offers a perfectly serviceable take on the villain until the end of the second act, during which he turns super-villain, at which point his performance goes from “prick” to “utterly, off the charts insane.” Seething, dripping, and echo-voiced (okay, that part makes no sense, but it just makes you appreciate an already hammy film even more), this version of Slovak bears his teeth like a fleshless skull at every possible instance. The sheer lunacy of this character transformation and the performance it inspires is one of the highlights that The Mind’s Eye offers.
By film’s end, in which the good guy and bad guy are making constipated faces at each other while covered in sweat as the camera shakes to make you feel the intensity, that feeling of “how seriously should I take this?” continues to be called into question,. If you want to take it seriously, fine — just watch it for all the cheese — but if you’d rather just enjoy The Mind’s Eye for what it is, you’re probably better off. Because it’s in watching The Mind’s Eye that you question just how much Beggos was in on the joke. Strictly as an ’80s-styled horror romp (except for the First Blood-style opening, which is very ’70s), he has succeeded quite easily, when keeping in mind that many, many horror films from the ’80s weren’t that good. But when there’s a sequence which cuts between Zack and Rachel having sex (in a variety of ways) with Dr. Slovak injecting himself, quite violently, with a syringe of magic scanner juice, it does leave you wondering — is Beggos having fun with us, or is he taking all this just a bit too seriously? I’d like to point to all the exploding heads and dummies being ripped in half as evidence to the latter, but the air of sincerity prevalent throughout The Mind’s Eye wants to suggest otherwise.
Though channeling Cronenberg and King, director Joe Beggos doesn’t miss the chance to slather The Mind’s Eye in Argento-style primary coloring, especially during the third act. It results in a wildly chaotic but beautiful image. The standout star of The Mind’s Eye, however, is the electronic musical score by Steve Moore, who previously provided similar sounds for The Guest, Mayhem, and Cub over the last couple years. If you were ever in doubt just how much an effective musical score can make or break a film, Moore proves it with The Mind’s Eye, and the movie wisely makes the score front and center in every possible scene.
Issues aside, I enjoyed The Mind’s Eye. Inconsistent performances and an uneven tone aside, there’s a lot to admire, most of which has to do with Beggos’ style as a director and his insistence on employing practical effects whenever possible. When one character in particular is levitated into the air before being split entirely in half in a beautiful gooey red shower of blood and guts, I was smiling ear to ear. And that makes me sound like a psychopath, but really it’s because this is what the ’80s were about: excess. Having said that, ’80s this is, but Stranger Things this ain’t.